Friday, December 16, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Aw, I wanna be a wizard...

It's been a long five years since the Harry Potter franchise bowed out, and many of us are primed and ready for another chance to peek into J.K. Rowling's uncommonly well-realized wizarding world.  I don't think many people expect Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to be an equal match for its parent franchise, so Fantastic Beasts really doesn't.  The film's creation is convoluted as hell, but it's also kind of fascinating.  Rather than being based on an existing story, it follows the adventures of a wizard who wrote a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the Harry Potter universereferenced occasionally by the characters. So it's essentially the story behind a book within a book.  However, none of that is important for full enjoyment of the film, which stands on its own as a fun, quirky trip.

Imperfect understanding is often more dangerous than ignorance.

The story is appropriately lightweight, but Rowling's darker tendencies make sure seep through now and again.  In 1926, a wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) from Britain arrives in New York City with a suitcase filled with dozens of incredible magical creatures.  Naturally, after a suitcase mix-up with a non-magical prospective baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the creatures escape and cause chaos among the ignorant New Yorkers  (called "no-majs" by the wizards).  A former Auror (basically the magic police) named Tina (Katherine Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard, but the President (Carmen Ejogo) has more pressing matters to worry about.  No-majs have been suspicious of magical activity, an unseen entity has been causing damage, and the dark wizard Grindelwald is on the loose.  Meanwhile, Newt, Kowalski, Tina, along with her psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) search the city for the titular fantastic beasts while avoiding the shifty Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

What makes Albus Dumbledore so fond of you, Mr. Scamander?

It's nice to see David Yates back in the director's chair after helming the entire second half of the Potter series, and he brings back his grounded sensibilities while thankfully adding a touch of whimsy to keep things fun.  Fantastic Beasts is a good example of a movie that knows what it is, rather than one built on cliches and preoccupied with delivering fan service.  There are references to Harry Potter lore, but the story doesn't linger on them.  The strengths of the film lie in the character interactions, with Kowalski and Queenie's relationship standing chief among them.  The creatures themselves don't disappoint, each given a distinctive personality and very cool design.  I naturally would have preferred to see more practical effects, which tend to hold up better over time.  It's an important factor when you want your movie to feel timeless, which Fantastic Beasts most definitely does.  The period piece setting is a lot of fun, and the screenplay's lack of modern snark lends the movie charm and likability.

New York is considerably more interesting than expected.

I think likable is the best way to describe the movie as a whole.  It has a bit of exciting action (moments of camera-swooping that recall the opening shot of Half-Blood Prince are actually amazing), but the movie sails mostly on moments of awe and the joy of discovery.  So much of how the world works is shown to us rather than explained, with the first look into Newt's suitcase shining as the standout moment of the film.  Connection to the main characters is easy, though I will say that Waterston's performance as Tina felt a little wooden.  If there was supposed to be any kind of romance between her and Newt, I certainly didn't feel it.  As for the villain's story, I haven't made up my mind about whether or not I liked it.  It's a touch confusing to be honest, so hopefully subsequent viewings will be kind to it.  Additionally, there's a late twist involving Graves that wasn't tied to the main story enough to really resonate.

Hey! Mr. English Guy! I think you're egg is hatched...

Fantastic Beasts is funny, warm, and pretty much everything I hoped it would be.  We finally get to see Rowling's world from a new perspective, in a new country, and with new characters that are focused on completely different issues than the characters in the Harry Potter series.  A great bit of world-building comes in the way social norms among the magical community differ between England and America, specifically when it comes to house elf slavery and marriage between no-majs and wizards.  It's all very captivating, as expected.  As a visual experience, there's plenty to love (though a bit more vibrancy wouldn't have hurt), and the characters are endearing and well-developed.  As for being the start of a new franchise?  I don't know, it felt good enough to stand on its own.  I won't begrudge Warner Bros. for trying to milk their franchise, but I will never forgive them if they screw it up.  They're off to a good start, but Rowling is clearly the key to making it all work.  As long as Rowling and producer David Heyman stay as involved and enthusiastic as they seemed to be on this project, here's hoping that good times lie ahead.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Year of the Turtle

The world's most fearsome fighting team.  Also adorable.

Over the course of 2016, I went from not being able to tell the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles apart to knowing far too much about them for anyone's good.  Leonardo (blue) leads.  Donatello (purple) does machines.  Raphael (red) is cool, but rude.  Michelangelo (orange) is a party dude.  They also like pizza and surfer slang, despite having grown up in the sewers of New York.  Some people get into this stuff when they're six, some when they're twenty-six.  What brought about this sudden... um... interest in the heroes in a half shell is beyond me.  I'm a child of the '90s, so I sort of missed out on Turtle Mania when it was at its peak.  It was probably morbid curiosity more than anything.  Plus I have a weird love of all things '80s, good and bad, so maybe this was inevitable.  In any case, in the span of one year, I watched all six theatrically-released movies (including one in an actual theater), the first few episodes of the original series, a bit of the series from the 2000s, a chunk of the new CG-animated show, and read the first few Mirage comics.  And even after all that, it's hard to pin down what makes this strange, funny, and shlock-tastic series so endearing to people.  As I kid I probably would have liked it for its surface details.  As an adult, there's entertainment value to be found in its unpredictable goofiness and its occasionally darker sense of humor.  Plus, that theme song's really grown on me.

So rather than try and give you several long-winded reviews of each part of the franchise, it might be more fun to just get my brief thoughts on the shows and movies in bite-sized pieces.  The original comic is not meant for kids, so the shock value of seeing the turtles swear and stab people to death was enough to peak my interest.  It was a parody of the ninja fad, the grim-and-gritty sensibilities of '80s comics, and more specifically, Daredevil.  To sell a toy line in 1987, creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird teamed up with Playmates Toys, who funded an animated television series.  The show was HUGE, running for ten seasons and spanning a literal empire's worth of merchandise.  It was very different from the comics, loaded with pun-heavy dialogue, standard Saturday morning villains and plots (likely even setting the standard), and from what I can tell, not much in the way of character development.  It has its charm though, and it's at its best when it's tongue is firmly in its cheek.  The subsequent animated series from the mid-2000s isn't really my cup of tea... it's certainly a better show in terms of its writing and animation, but it's not a lot of fun to watch.  The current series, which began airing in 2012, blows both of them (and each theatrical film) out of the water.  It's constantly playing with the tropes of the franchise and cartoon shows in general, frequently filled with hilarious dialogue, solid action, and great voice acting.   There's even (gasp) character development and plot progression!  Its animation takes some getting used to unfortunately, but if you can get past the wooden appearances of the human characters, it's legitimately a worthwhile show.  Who'd have guessed?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

The first feature is about as good and bad as one would expect. It's such a dumb movie, but I'll admit that I kind of liked it.  You get the sense that a lot of the people involved with this project were making a feature film for the first time (it's technically an independent film after all), leaving the movie with consistently awkward scenes and a radically shifting tone.  Combining elements from the comics and the cartoon show leads to some very strange moments (look no further than a scene featuring a hand-puppet rat learning karate), but it's in the strangeness and clear desire to be "gritty" that the entertainment value can be found.  There are a few "damns" and "hells" thrown around, there's some child smoking, and the violence is just a bit harsher than what you expect from a typical kids' movie.  It may have been released in 1990, but it's pure '80s shlock.  It's made with heart and genuine effort (especially from the Jim Henson company), even if the end results are mixed.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)

Nothing could prepare me for Secret of the Ooze.  Nothing.  This movie is batshit insane.  I was locked in a constant state of bewilderment, never knowing what the hell was going to happen next.  It may be a direct sequel to the first movie, but because of the casting changes and the much lighter tone, it feels like a different beast entirely.  I'm talking cartoon sound effects, a plot that feels like it's being made up on the spot (which is entirely possible; they shat this thing out in less than a year after all), and the script is full of puns and bad jokes galore.  It's a slicker film than the first, to be sure, but I missed the cursing and overall edge the first movie had.  Still, I laughed my ass off throughout the movie's hour and a half (which felt SO much longer), and I'm ecstatic to call Secret of the Ooze one of my new favorite so-bad-it's-good movies. Thank you so much, Vanilla Ice.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993)

This one was rough.  Not shlock, not so-bad-it's-good, just bad. The first two films are trash, but at least there's some semblance that the folks behind the scenes were trying to make an entertaining movie.  Turtles in Time feels more like a cheesy kids' tv show with a high budget.  We have more casting changes, the tone is even lighter than the last movie, and gone are the Jim Henson animatronics.  Everything's just so clunky; scenes start and stop without flowing into each other, the acting and dialogue are atrocious, and there's this constant noise filling the soundtrack that is absolutely grating.  The characters just seem to have to be saying something every second, as if the filmmakers thought kids would get bored if there wasn't constant aural clutter.  The time travel plot could have worked fine, but it's executed so poorly.  No one cared about this one, and it's clear from minute one that you're in for an all around terrible time.

TMNT (2007)

Fast-forwarding fifteen years, and we randomly run into a little oddity called TMNT.  I wasn't sure if the film would try and tie-in to the live action trilogy, but that's definitely not the case. This all-CG version exists in its own universe, but confusingly, you kind of need to know a lot about the characters (feeling for the first time like actual characters) to get enjoyment out of it. It feels like a sequel to a movie that doesn't exist.  There's still some stupidity to be found when it comes to the story, but objectively speaking, it's the best of the theatrical movies.  It has a stellar voice cast, way less corny dialogue, and a few scenes between Leo and Raph that are, without a doubt, the best the franchise has to offer.  Some things hold it back from being legitimately good though, like a hackneyed villain plot and less than top-notch animation.  CGI is not kind to human characters.  They look like marionettes in the new TV series and they look like melting Barbie dolls in this movie.  However, the film is not without style, and it's too bad there was never a follow-up film that takes place in this continuity.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

There's a difference between a movie that wants to be something but doesn't quite get there, and a movie that shoots for the lowest common denominator and passes with flying colors.  The Michael Bay-produced Ninja Turtles movies fall into the latter category, and bring with them a very unappealing layer of sleaze.  The first film in this new series is a hard reboot for the franchise, giving the Turtles and April O'Neill a new "origin" story that just does not work at all.  Everything about this movie just screams "unlikable," from the way the turtles look (despite their motion-capture animation being well-executed) to all of the creepy sexual innuendo.  I liked the original movie for it's edge, but this isn't edgy.  It's just sleazy.  The attempts to ape the success of the Transformers movies are very apparent, and the way it's shot and cast makes it resemble a commercial rather than a movie.  With so much money behind it, it's too bad the creative team couldn't have delivered a genuinely good Ninja Turtles movie for once.  I guess I give them props for that joke about the hip-hop Christmas album though.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)

Out of the Shadows may be a marked improvement over its predecessor, but it's by no means a good movie.  Bay stayed on to produce, so the sleaze is still there in truckloads, and the story is still godawful.  But it's more awful in an "'80s cartoon" way, and you know what?  I'll take that over the generic awful that was slathered all over the 2014 version.  There's an abundant use of color, the action is a bit more fun, there are far more characters from the original cartoon present, and there's at least some attempt to get a character moment or two from the titular characters.  There's a sense that some of the creative higher-ups were trying to give fans of the franchise something they'd actually like, and while I still think they failed, it says something that they tried.  The movie bombed pretty hard at the box office, so I think we're safe from another Bay Turtles movie for now.  Thank God for that.

So what can we take away from all of this?  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a joke, then it became an empire.  Its various adaptations have been so wildly different, and the quality range is a nightmare roller coaster.  But man, is it pretty fun to ride.  I now have Secret of the Ooze for my next bad movie night, a solid animated series that's still running today, and there's admittedly a charming "awesome" factor when it comes to the original comic, cartoon, and first movie.  However, my head hurts from thinking about this crap for too long, so I think I'll wait a bit before dumpster-diving into more '80s pop culture.  Crap, now I'm hungry for pizza.

Cowabunga, dude.

Monday, December 5, 2016

(In Defense of) Avatar

Everything is backwards now.  
Like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.

It seems that in the intervening seven years since James Cameron's epic sci-fi Avatar flew onto IMAX 3D screens and became (and still remains) the highest-grossing film of all time, it's not a popular opinion among film fans to think that it's actually "good."  But I've never been one to side with popular opinion. The film made entirely too much money, yes.  It influenced the film industry, with studios focusing more on 3D and CGI than ever before, yielding mixed results at best.  And yes, there's no denying that the film is a classic case of style over substance.  But my god, how can you not just marvel at that style?  The achievement of creating a stunningly-detailed virtual world?  The imagination that went into the designs of the Na'vi, the creatures, the plants, the everything?  Avatar is captivating in ways that most fantasy/sci-fi films only wish they could be, and no matter how boilerplate the screenplay may be at times, I just don't feel that's the same as it being "bad."

Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn't do.

Whatever opinion on Cameron's script you have (and I know you have one), it's hard to argue against the fact that objectively, it's functional.  That doesn't sound like high praise, but when you consider pacing and plotting, Avatar absolutely nails the essentials.  How many three hour-long movies fly by this quickly?  Lets not forget that Avatar is almost devoid of Hollywood trends that plague even the best modern blockbusters, i.e. shoehorned-in pop-culture references, snarky self-referencing, and sterile, shaky-cam action.  The story and characters are earnest, which admittedly leads to some corniness.  But have you seen a James Cameron movie?  Corniness goes hand in hand with the outstanding action, and I think it helps give the whole affair some heart.  It's also refreshing to see a film based on an original story (shut up, being derivative is not the same as being based on a comic, a novel, or being a straight remake).  The themes about the evils of imperialism (which are nowhere near outdated) are strong, however on-the-nose they may be.  And although many of the characters are ten-foot tall, blue aliens rendered by a computer, it's easy to care about them and get invested in their culture and plights.

Sky People can not learn, they do not "see."

It helps that the main cast is overall very good, with the clear standout being Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. She carries the film when Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) is too busy being rather bland.  And although the supporting cast (including Sigorney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, and Joel David Moore) are mostly playing stock characters without much depth, they fully commit to their roles and give the film some personality.  The motion capture tech that gives nuance to the performances of the Na'vi is nothing short of incredible, and I never feel that the actors are being overshadowed by their digital makeup (except for maybe Worthington, but more on that later).  The flattest character, and most one-note performance, comes from Stephen Lang as the villainous Colonel Quaritch, who delivers some pretty awful dialogue and exists purely as a plot device.  I won't deny this though: watching him die at the end is a lot of fun.

Where's my cigarette?

Speaking of things I don't particularly like, that opening narration is just... too much.  Jake tells the audience literally EVERYTHING we need to know about him; his disability, his brother, his military background, most of which is just reiterated through dialogue minutes later!  This robs the film of chances for characters to connect by telling each other a little bit about themselves.  Maybe Jake could have had a conversation with Neytiri about how he can't walk in his "real" body, and how amazing it is to live in his avatar.  Then Neytiri could ask more questions about him and his life on Earth and so on, and strengthened the love story.  The absolute worst aspect of the movie has got to be the name Cameron gives to the precious metal that the military wants to mine for, but can't get to.  Say it with me now: UNOBTANIUM.  That's not on-the-nose, that's inside the nose and nestling with the snot (apologies for the visual).  What the hell was anybody thinking when they let that name get all the way from script to final edit?  Lastly, and I know I've touched on this, but Worthington just doesn't totally work for me as the lead.  He's fitted for the jar head role at first, but he never shows the charisma the character calls for, and I have no doubts that his expressions were modified more so than most in his Na'vi form, because Jake as a character connects far more there than he does as a stone-faced human.  Also, let's not talk about Worthington's Australian accent slippage, which occurs every single time he says "life" and other common words.

Sooner or later, you always have to wake up.

I'm mixed about how I feel about the James Horner score.  In some places it's beautiful, in others it's derivative and obnoxious, and in some cases it's actually too quiet, getting buried beneath sound effects.  I suppose it's above average, and it was never going to compare with his work on Titanic, which remains one of my favorite films scores of all time.  The strongest element in Avatar is its masterful design, which is punctuated by bio-luminescent forests, floating rock islands, and cliff sides filled with dinosaur bird monsters that you can ride.  I mean, it's all just so cool.  And so much gorgeous color!  Someone please let the Marvel Cinematic Universe know that movies are allowed to have color.  I've rarely come out of a theater and desperately needed to visit the place I've just seen, even when those places actually exist.

I was born to do this.

If it didn't make nearly three billion dollars, (or better yet, if it outright bombed), I have no doubt that Avatar would be hailed as an underrated masterpiece; a massive achievement in film making with a cult fan base gaining Firefly levels of devotion.  But that was never going to happen; the Fox marketing team wasn't about the let the next film from the long-absent director of Titanic fall into obscurity.  It was destined to be a hit from birth, though I doubt anyone could have guessed that the highest grossing film of all time would be trumped by the same director's very next movie.  The film has its problems, ranging from a bland lead to a predictable story, but they feel like little islands in a sea of genuine awe and spectacle.  Its CGI may not exactly pass for photo-real live action in every shot, but like the best Disney animation, it makes us forget we're watching cartoons because of the nuance, detail, and (most importantly) believable gravity and motion the animation team delivers.  I still love Avatar, even if the world doesn't - or more than likely, has just forgotten about it.



Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

If you must blink, do it now.

Guys, seriously.  Laika needs to have a hit soon or we're just plain not going to have mainstream stop-motion movies anymore. Enough despairing though, because Kubo and the Two Strings is just as fantastic as I hoped it would be.  Besides the remarkable animation that Laika is known for, the story is layered and the characters have clearly been created with love and care.  I was also pleased to see that edginess and darkness (considering its intended family audience) that Laika is also known for, dealing with themes of death and featuring its fair share of frightening images.  The spooky fun kind, anyway.  Though the plotting is very familiar, and never strays too far from the classic "hero's journey," the mixing in of Japanese aesthetics and mythology, along with a meta-narrative about storytelling, make Kubo and the Two Strings truly unforgettable.

When we grow stronger, the world grows more dangerous.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy living in Ancient Japan in a cave with his mother.  One assumes they are incredibly poor, no doubt due to Kubo's mother's debilitating mental illness (the cause of which I won't spoil here).  She drifts in an out of sanity, catatonia, and intense sadness.  She urges Kubo never to stay out past dark, or powerful forces will come after him.  He has no reason to have doubt, for Kubo has a gift; with his shamisen (a stringed instrument), he has the power to move paper and create puppet shows using origami.  The townspeople adore his stories and all seems well, despite the fact that Kubo essentially has no life outside of caring for his mother and putting on these shows.  But inevitably one night, Kubo stays out too late.  Disaster strikes, and Kubo must set out on a quest to find pieces of magical armor that once belonged to his father, Hanzo.  Along his journey, he is accompanied by a mystical, talking Monkey (Charlize Theron), a giant cursed Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who used to be a samurai, and a small origami man that resembles his father.

Literally the first time I've ever done that...

This is Travis Knight's first time at the director's helm, though he's actually the CEO of Laika.  He's clearly in it for the love of the art; Kubo and the Two Strings couldn't stink less of executive marketing if the characters did a Juicy Fruit commercial halfway through.  The film moves along at a quick pace, but scenes are given time to breathe.  The audience really gets a chance to take in the beauty of the locations and the intricacy of animation.  This is all acompanied by a memorable and sweet score by Dario Marianelli, who also scored Laika's last film, The Boxtrolls.  His work is much stronger here, invoking some very bittersweet feelings which perfectly match the melancholy of the story.  It's a funny and action-packed movie to be sure, but it's not afraid to be sad as well.

Down here there are always things worth fighting for.

As much as I praise the stop-motion animation, I'm well aware that much of Kubo's look is enhanced by CGI.  Water effects, backgrounds, and ancillary characters may be rendered by a computer, but they don't hurt the film's charm one bit. Most of what we see has been crafted by hand and was moved in twenty-four frames per second intervals.  There's really nothing like it.  What helps Laika's character animation feel so unrestrained is almost certainly thanks to 3D printing.  Hundreds of tiny heads for the characters can be designed digitally, then printed so that the animators can achieve an unprecedented amount of emotions.  Not impressed? Kubo also houses the largest armature puppet ever created in the form of a giant skeleton creature that the heroes battle. 

This filthy creature will tear you apart...

Not everything in Kubo's screenplay is amazing.  Some of Beetles jokes fall a bit flat, especially when they seem to be pandering to kids.  McConnahay's performance is fine, but if he had to be comic relief, I wish he's been a bit less chatty.  The rest of the cast is fantastic, especially Parkinson, who carries the film's many emotional moments.  However, I do wish there had been some Asian casting besides George Takei, who has little more than a glorified cameo.  It may have strengthened the Japanese flavor of the world, which tends to lean more toward being distinctly American.  Also, maybe a little Japanese text here and there?  A few more Japanese words in the dialogue?  It might have been interesting to see.

Kubo, we've been waiting for you for so long...

The best part about Kubo and the Two Strings is that it's just fun to watch.  It's a self-contained story that may be simplistic when it comes to plot, but its themes of family, death, and the power of storytelling elevate it to near greatness.  Is it Laika's best film?  I think my heart still belongs to Paranorman, but time will tell.  I certainly think its animation might be the best the studio's put out, and there's plenty of imagery that really stays with you (the two evil sisters are pretty chill-inducing). I wish the movie had been a hit, and maybe inspired some other studios to take more chances with original stories and forms of animation that aren't freaking CGI.  But I guess I'll just have to be happy with the positive critical reception and the love from people who've actually seen the thing.  I'm already dying from the anticipation of Laika's next film, which I'm sure will be amazing and make absolutely no money as well.



Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Stephen Strange may be well-known to Marvel comics fans, but to us movie fans on the outside, he's relatively obscure.  I went into Doctor Strange with fresh eyes and hardly any expectations, and despite having visual similarities to Batman Begins and Inception from what I could see in the trailers, I had hoped for something original and outside the norm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I may not have come away moved by the story or deeply invested in the characters, but damn there were some mind-bendingly gorgeous visuals.  I'd almost recommend seeing the film entirely for its special effects action scenes, but then I'd be ignoring the great performances from the cast and the outstanding work from the production designers.  The star of the show may be the surface-level elements, but what a shiny surface it is!

"I don't believe in fairy tales..."

After a hand-crippling car accident, the arrogant and self-important neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) struggles to find a way to heal himself with Western science.  So he turns to the East, travelling to Kamar-Taj to meet someone known to heal severe injuries using willpower and spiritual practices.  When Strange meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), she shocks him by separating his spirit from his body and showing him the psychedelic wonders of the multiverse. Training under her and an advanced student named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange excels at learning the art of sorcery and can soon bend reality and time to his will.  He may even be doing a bit too well, with his blatant disregard for "the rules."  This makes The Ancient One uneasy, for meanwhile an ex-student of hers named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is plotting to summon a dark demon from another dimension, and it could spell the end of the world as we know it.

"Did you put mushrooms in my tea?"

There's nothing particularly wrong with the story.  It all works quite well, using the proper plotting tropes to move its story and characters along at a relatively fast pace.  The problem is that so much of it is obvious and inventive, such as when characters like Strange's love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) tell him things like "all you care about is yourself" straight to his face.  It's awfully easy to tell his character arc from the very first scene, making honest investment in his journey a bit harder to achieve.  There's also very little breathing room to really get to know the characters, as each scene involves us discovering something new about the world, the magic, or the ancient battle between good and evil.  Exposition is also the movie's Achilles heel; quite a few scenes are devoted to info-dumping so that we know what's going on in this rather complicated world.  While there are plenty of interesting visuals to accompany said exposition, it still doesn't make for dramatic storytelling.  Also, the less we talk about the villains, the better.

"Forget everything that you think you know..."

Where the film excels is in those nifty visual effects sequences.  City blocks fold, people defy gravity, and the world behaves like it was cut up by a kaleidoscope.  There's even a spectacular time-reversing scene that is nothing if not the best I've ever seen of its type.  Doctor Strange himself looks fantastic in his final getup, and Cumberbatch fits the role perfectly.  His American accent is... not the best... but how he embodies the character, and that's what matters.  The supporting cast is great as well.  I wish we could have seen a bit more of McAdams, but I suppose that's what sequels are for.  The score by Michael Giacchino is good, like all other MCU movies, but not memorable in the slightest.  I never would have guessed that the same man who wrote music for Up and The Incredibles could deliver something so average.  I say that with love, Mikey.

"So you joined a cult?"

Director Scott Derrickson and the studio clearly put a lot of effort into this project, but most of it went to crafting those truly incredible action/spectacle scenes. This is one of those rare movies that I would suggest seeing in 3D, because the filmmakers use it to enhance the trippiness of the different realms and dimensions. While the script and dialogue (which makes sure to slip in a few solid jokes) are just fine, the problem is that all the elements are pretty boilerplate when you get right down to it.  Hell, even within the MCU we've had several films (Iron Man and Ant-Man) with extremely similar plot structures and that contained nearly identical character arcs.  The movie may be dull in spots, but it sure knew how to distract me with so much beautiful, shiny, gorgeous, trippy, what were we talking about?



Friday, October 14, 2016

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Frankenweenie (2012)

Science is not good or bad, Victor. But it can be used both ways. 
That is why you must be careful.

If there's one thing that separates the current Tim Burton from the Tim Burton of the '80s and '90s, it's a sense of tactility.  No matter how fantastical the worlds of Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas are, there is a charm to their tangibility; the use of miniatures and expansive sets give the viewer the sense that they are walking through a fun, haunted house.  What Burton's more current films do a bit too much is - let's say it together now - overuse CGI.  Films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland may employ some of Burton's trademark designs, but many set pieces resemble a video game; far too busy and glossy for their own good.  This is a problem that plagues many films of the 21st Century, but I think I miss seeing movies of Original Burton's particular brand of movie making in particular.  Imagine my excitement in 2012 when I found out that Burton and Disney were making a remake of Burton's own short film Frankenweenie, using stop-motion and in glorious black and white!

Goodbye, Kitty

Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a quiet and creative boy who lives in the conservative town of New Holland with his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) and his beloved dog Sparky (Frank Welker).  Tragically, Sparky is hit by a car and killed, which of course leaves Victor devistated.  Rather than accept Sparky's fate and move on, he gets an idea from his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) to use electricity to bring Sparky back to life.  After many classic movie homages, Victor's test is successful; a patched-up Sparky lives again!  Although he does have a few defects, including a tail that sometimes falls off and a need to feed off electricity to keep his energy up.  Other than that, he's the same old, lovable Sparky.  The other kids at school unfortunately find out about Victor's experiment, and with a big science fair contest coming up, they want in on how it was done. Victor's piers (some of whom resemble characters from the classic Frankenstein movies) attempt to bring back their own dead pets, which leads to chaotic results and plenty more movie homages.

Lightning does not hit a person, like a baseball or a cabbage...

There's so much to like about Frankenweenie, even if at the end of the day it probably could have been better.  One only needs to look at the original live-action short film from 1984 to see where the new version falters when it comes to genuine emotion, particularly when it comes to Victor's parents.  Their reaction to seeing their son's dead dog come back to life in the short is .  The night they find out, they try to comfort each other by saying things like,"Some parents worry about their kids getting into drugs.  I guess we're lucky."  Very little of that black comedy is here; the revelation that Sparky has been brought back from the dead is met with either casual or stilted reactions, which takes away some of the story's heart.  And speaking of the story, there are bits of padding all over and setups that go nowhere.  Much of the story is motivated by an upcoming science fair, but we never see it happen.  A girl next door with love interest potential (Winona Ryder) is squandered.  And Victor himself isn't given a very wide range of emotions, making it harder to get into his head in many crucial scenes.

You're alive! You're alive!

But enough of the bad, let's get into what I love about the movie; atmosphere, classic horror references, and that gorgeous stop-motion animation. The characters in Frankenweenie inhabit a world very similar to that of Edward Scissorhands. It's bleak suburbia, with an cartoonish emphasis on conformity, which is the perfect kind of world for a character like the undead Sparky to enter in and cause a panic.  The creepiest visual, however, isn't Sparky or the other students' undead pets; it's the nightmare-inducing science teacher.  Aside from being a great character, he also helps to demonstrate some of the thematic meaning behind the themes of the story, which is that you can't be afraid to ask questions about life just because no one else is asking them.  There's a scene in an auditorium that's very reminiscent of the creationism vs. evolution wars that happened in schools in the early 20th century (of which, though unspecified, appears to be when Frankenweenie takes place).  That sense of timelessness helps make the monster scenes toward the end more fun as well; kudos to anyone who gets the Gamera reference.  Just me then, huh?

My problem bigger...

While the film's aesthetics are important (the score by Danny Elfman is good, if not his most memorable), they all hinge on whether or not the animation is working.  Though it never quite reaches the heights of Corpse Bride in that regard, it's stunning to behold all the same.  Sparky, in particular, steals the show whenever he's onscreen, with his dog-like ticks and mannerisms and ability to express such clear emotion without having to say a single word.  In fact, he's much more expressive than any of the human characters, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was intentional. The designs of Victor's classmates are distinctive and strange, with some of their designs clearly based on characters from Frankenstein.  Just guess who the next door neighbor, Mr. Bergermeister, is an homage to.

I don't want him in my heart... I want him here, with me...

Frankenweenie isn't afraid to go dark in places (after all, a child losing a pet is a sensitive subject), but it's otherwise a very fun and lightweight movie.  Too lightweight in some places (the concept of moving on when a loved one dies is completely stomped out), but its strengths are definitely on the front lines.  What a shame the movie bombed at the box office, and in October no less.  It means we likely won't get anything from Disney or Burton any time soon of this caliber, so thank god we have Laika to give us stop-motion beauties in the interim.  Nonetheless, I've made Frankenweenie part of my annual Halloween viewing cycle, and I continue to find little details that I'd never seen before.  Beyond the movie's amusing jokes and excellent atmosphere, its best attribute is that wonderful tangibility I miss so much from Hollywood movies.

7 scary teachers out of 10

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Anomalisa (2015)

Jesus, do I love stop-motion animation.  It has a haunting quality when it's done right, and haunting is a good way to describe Anomalisa.  The film lets the audience be confused for a reasonable amount of time before they can sort out the movie's stylistic oddities for themselves.  Those oddities are downright disorienting at first; I won't spoil it here for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but when I realized what was happening and, why it was happening, the film transformed from a slice-of-life love story to a deeply sad, psychological character study.

What is it to be alive?

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the film follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged customer service expert visiting Cincinnati to promote his new book.  At his hotel, it's immediately clear that he has trouble connecting with other people.  He even attempts to hook up with his ex-wife, but their dinner date is a disaster.  Then he meets a woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), someone who Michael feels a deep connection with simply by hearing her voice.  The two have an incredibly special night (one that the filmmakers don't shy away from when it comes to the details of intimacy), and Michael is sure he has found "the one."  But such things are only a fantasy, as he discovers that Lisa isn't the person he thought she was very soon after.

Sometimes there is no lesson. That's a lesson in itself.

The illusion of love and the insecurities that go along with it are a major theme in Anomalisa. Michael may be the protagonist, and it's quite easy to empathize with his frustration with the blandness and homogenization of the world.  However, Michael is also controlling and too demanding, making his dissatisfaction with his life partially his own fault.  He perceives the world as a dull, homogenized place full of phony and empty people.  This gives the use of stop-motion puppets (complete with obvious face-plate seams) added resonance because the world Michael lives in is literally all fake. There's even a brilliantly-executed dream sequence where Michael's face plate falls off and the audience can see the gears hiding right beneath his skin.

Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that. 

Lisa herself is a lovely character.  She's such a sweet and innocuous woman, animated and voice acted with charm, insecurity, and awkwardness that's impossible to not find endearing.  Michael calls her an anomaly because when he hears her voice, it stands out against the paleness of the world.  He loves it so much that he asks her to talk. About what? Who cares?  He's infatuated by everything she is and everything he wants her to be.  Until he's suddenly not.  Is that really what love is?  Does it have to be?  I suppose it's up to the viewer to decide whether or not to side with Michael or not.  Can we ever be happy if we expect perfection out of people?  Of course not.  But Michael doesn't love Lisa because she's perfect; in fact, she hides a large scar over her eye with her hair due to her insecurity.  Michael is just far too aware of the phony world he lives in, and he thought he'd finally found someone he could share that feeling with.

Everyone's the same.

All of this is created through truly stunning animation, with character designs and fluid movements that have one toe in the uncanny valley and settings that are distinctly beautiful in how boring they are. The dream sequence is very unnerving and surreal, though it comes later than expected given Kaufman's sensibilities. If the film had two or even three moments like it, I wouldn't have complained.  Being the rare R-rated animated film for adults made for a US audience, there are quite a few visuals that may catch you off guard, especially when it comes to aforementioned intimate moment between Michael and Lisa.  And though I haven't mentioned him yet due to spoilers, Tom Noonan gives an absolutely terrific vocal performance.  Several in fact.

The zoo won't take up too much of your time... it's zoo-sized.

I have tremendous respect for the artists of Anomalisa, for they've created a very special film.  The script is wonderfully layered and profoundly sad, the animation and direction is incredible, and the voice acting is on point.  My favorite element of the movie has to be the artistic decision that I'm really struggling to hold back, and I refuse to reveal it because there was true joy in the discovery. That, my friend, is a rare treasure.  It's absolutely mind-blowing while also being simple, and even if the rest of the movie hadn't been very good, I'd still be recommending it. Thankfully, Anomalisa turns out to be a great movie, one that may not have the solution for loneliness, but it certainly knows the recipe.

9 creepy Japanese sex robots out of 10

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Iron Giant

In honor of the new Blu-ray release of Brad Bird's The Iron Giant, I thought I'd share my thoughts on what many consider to be one of the greatest animated buried treasures of all time. In the '90s, Disney was at their peak, producing hit after hit after hit.  They teamed up with Pixar to produce fully computer-animated films like Toy Story and A Bug's Life.  By 1999, the industry was jam-packed with quality animation from both studios, and a few solid hits from Dreamworks, but the once proud Warner Bros. was waning badly.  They needed a hit to keep their animation department alive, but they sure as hell didn't get it with The Iron Giant. The movie bombed at the box office, but was a huge hit critically, with Roger Ebert comparing it to the works of Hayao Miyazaki.  It's since found a highly-devoted cult fan base, most of whom discovered the film on VHS years after its release.

Then suddenly... without warning... ATOMIC HOLOCAUST

Fair warning, but I'm about to sound like a total hipster; I was one of the few kids that actually saw this in theaters.  But it wasn't because I wanted to; in fact, I was extremely disappointed that Inspector Gadget  was sold out on the weekend my parents took me to see it, and we settled for the only other family movie playing in the theater.  I wasn't disappointed for too long; The Iron Giant engrossed me so fully that by the thrilling climax I couldn't care less what Matthew Broderick and his springy feet were up to.  I've been a fan ever since, and probably love the film more now than when I was nine.  The Cold War themes, the funny and endearing characters, and the charming-as-hell animation all come together to form a movie with so much soul.  To have a film with any soul come from the same studio that brought us the shamefully derivative Quest for Camelot only a year prior is downright incredible.

I go. You stay. No following.

The story follows Hogarth Hughes, a boy growing up in the town of Rockwell, Maine during the late 1950s; a time when Cold War paranoia was at its peak after the launch of Sputnik.  In the midst of feeling alone, between his working single mother and the bullies at school, Hogarth discovers a gigantic, metal robot in the woods.  The giant seems to be suffering memory loss, without a clue who he is or what his purpose in coming to Earth was. So he follows Hogarth like a child, learning about the world and how it works with great enthusiasm as he hunts for metal to eat.  Hogarth realizes that he can't keep the giant in his tool shed for long, so he hides him at a local junkyard with a beatnik artist named Dean, who isn't jazzed about the idea but warms up to the giant after a while.  All the while, the paranoid government agent Kent Mansley searches for the giant's whereabouts so that he can destroy it all all costs.

Souls don't die

While its story may owe a lot to Spielberg's E.T. at first glance, there's powerful depth to be found in The Iron Giant that makes all of its similarities forgivable.  I think the movie can be summed up in a scene where Hogarth consoles the grieving giant after they witness a deer being shot by a hunter in the woods.  As the scene plays out, and you realize that you're watching a little boy try to explain the concept of souls to an alien robot, the movie has proven that it's something special.  It's handled delicately, but direct enough that you surely won't find anything like it in another American animated adventure.  So many moments like that are littered throughout the film; moments where characters connect, where genuine drama is felt, and where outstanding humor has time to shine.  There's some refreshing edge to be found here too; the occasional "damn" and "hell" give us the impression that the characters don't live in a safe, kid-friendly world, and I love the movie all the more for it.

You can fly?!

The Iron Giant looks fantastic as well. I've always loved the look of Warner Bros. feature animation, with its warm, appealing character designs (that tend to have very round eyes) and fluid animation that looks just below the standard caliber for Disney movies, yet retains immense charm. The movie practically embodies the season of autumn, save for the snowy climax.  One thing Warner certainly had over other studios in 1999 was the ability to blend hand-drawn animation with CGI elements, and this is demonstrated no better than by the giant himself.  The way he blends with the elements around him is truly something of an achievement.  Not only is it not distracting that he's a CGI character, his design is crafted so he can express himself the way he needs to without breaking that design at all (in stark contrast to B.E.N. in Treasure Planet, a horribly-animated character that floats above the hand-drawn elements like he's in another dimension entirely.  And that movie came out four years later!).  It's a shame that the animation department had to shut down due to their films' repeated failures, but at least they gave us this gem before they did.

He's a weapon... a big gun that walks

The voice work is spot-on as well.  Eli Marienthol holds everything together as Hogarth, thanks (I'm sure) in part to Brad Bird's steady direction.  The script is full of emotion, comedy, and drama, and the cast (including Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., and Christopher MacDonald) captures it all with great enthusiasm.  The score is great; Michael Kamen (who scored the next year's X-Men) composes a whimsical soundtrack that evokes childhood, discovery, and wonder, which couldn't match the film more perfectly.  My favorite moment of scoring-meets-voice-acting has to come at the film's climax, when the score swells and Vin Diesel (as the giant) slowly utters "Superman."  I'm not crying... it's allergies...

You are who you chose to be

The Iron Giant is a triumph, with great animation, resonant themes, and acts as a 50s nostalgia piece while also criticizing the era.  But what makes it one of the best animated movies of all time is its story and characters, both of which have clearly been given the utmost care and attention.  Having seen the Signature Edition (in theaters and on Blu-ray) with about two minutes of additional animation, I'm not exactly floored.  One scene builds up the relationship between Dean and Hogarth's mother a bit, and the other foreshadows the giant's destructive power.  The animation syncs nicely with the rest of the movie, but it's not required viewing.  Brad Bird is one of my favorite writer/directors working today (he also directed my favorite Pixar movie, Ratatouille), because he makes sure that beneath the frame of his movies there lies a beating heart.  He's expressed interest in doing another hand-drawn feature film, but I'll believe it when I see it.  And my God, do I want to see it.