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.