Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Black Cauldron (1985)

Few Disney movies have interested me as much as The Black Cauldron, speaking strictly from a behind-the-scenes standpoint.  From its notoriously troubled production history to its colossal failure at the box office in 1985, I find myself fascinated by its relative obscurity. This was a movie that began pre-production in 1973; a full twelve years before it would see the light of cinema screens.  An inexperienced staff, constant rewrites, and a sense that Disney had lost its magic touch caused many talented animators (including Don Bluth and Tim Burton) to leave the studio over the course of production.  Once the film was nearly completed, it was a struggle to market.  The production team intended to create a dark fantasy for teens, but then-new CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to sell the film to kids and families (just like nearly all Disney films had been up to that point).  There were instances of death, gore, and frightening images the likes of which had never been attempted in Disney animation.  So commenced the film's editing: twelve minutes of finished animation were cut; unprecedented and financially unwise in the world of hand-drawn animation.

So, what happened when it finally arrived in theaters?  Well, let's just say it made less money than that year's The Care Bears Movie.  Yeesh.  The film was such a disaster that the company has all but disowned it.   It didn't even get a VHS release until 1998; thirteen freakin' years later!  It also has the distinction of being the only non-wartime Disney film unreleased on Blu-Ray, and with no plans by studio to do so.  I'd kill for a quality documentary on the full making of The Black Cauldron, but 2009's Waking Sleeping Beauty does a very good job detailing the changing of the guard at the Disney studio during the '80s.  It's a great watch if you're interested in the history of Disney animation.

The film itself is obviously ambitious, and often times very beautiful, but it's not one for the ages.  The story focuses on a teenage boy named Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig-keeper in the Medieval, magical land of Prydain.  He longs to be a warrior (as he states outright multiple times), and one day, he gets his chance.  The evil Horned King (John Hurt), a skull-faced demon man, seeks the mythical powers of the Black Cauldron, which has the power to raise an unstoppable undead army.  The pig that Taran takes care of is named Hen Wen, but it's no ordinary pig; she has psychic powers, and can detect where the Black Cauldron is hidden.  Once the Horned King finds out about this (somehow), he sends his dragon creatures out to capture her.  Taran, having been tasked with protecting Hen Wen, journeys to the Horned King's spooky castle to rescue her.  Along the way, he meets a furry little creature named Gurgi (John Byner), who is clearly hungry, lonely, and a little insane.  While there, he runs into other prisoners, including Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) with a magic harp.  After making their escape from the legions of grotesque guards, led by the king's lackey Creeper (Phil Fondacaro), and discovering a magic sword, the trio must find the Cauldron before the Horned King and save Prydain.

I have no real issues with the film's plot.  On paper, it's a straightforward Medieval fantasy adventure story, and one with a lot of potential.  However, in execution, the writing leaves a lot to be desired.  Constant plot holes pop up, including one that the late, great film critic Gene Siskel pointed out in 1985; when the characters get Hen Wen back, and need to find out where the Black Cauldron is before the Horned King, why not just use her to find out where it is?  Wasn't that the reason he wanted her in the first place?  The lead characters are also vanilla as hell, all without backstories or meaningful relationships to each other.  Taran's dialogue is so irritatingly on-the-nose, and his voice actor is, quite frankly, rather annoying.  Eilonwy (not too crazy about the names either) is called "Princess," but of what exactly?  How did she end up a prisoner?  Where is her kingdom?  She does a magic spell in one scene, but then never brings it up again! Prydain is an especially under-developed world.  We never see any villages, never get a glimpse at the war that's supposedly raging on, and the only magical community we encounter are some fairies in a cave underground.  These are things that I doubt the twelve minutes of deleted footage would have fixed.

Yeah... this happens...

However, once you know that so much violence was excised from the movie, you can plainly see where it might have helped make things more interesting.  The undead army has a whole lot of buildup, but they are defeated before they can even cross the bridge out of the castle.  Letting the  their lost scenes of menace (which included slicing a man's throat and dissolving a man in mist) might have scared the crap out of young kids, but the film would have at least set itself apart from other Disney movies by deciding to "go there."  What results is a film that feels somewhat neutered.  Alas, a number of scary images do still remain, all of which are much appreciated (and apparently did scare the crap out of the few children who grew up with this movie).

Style over substance is clearly what the film excels at anyway; it's gorgeously animated.  Especially judging by the standards of animation in the '80s, it's downright groundbreaking.  The scratchy look of Xerography is replaced by a sharper style achieved with the slicker APT (Animation Photo Transfer) process.  To my knowledge, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and The Little Mermaid are the only films to ever use the process, before all cleanup and coloring was done in the computer.  I have a real soft spot for this style, which has the charm of ink and paint cells but also the smoothness of digital finishing.  It's the best of both worlds, and it's sad there will likely never be another film made this way.

Given the withdrawals I'm currently experiencing with the lack of any American hand-drawn animated films as of late, The Black Cauldron delivered tenfold on that front.  The dark backgrounds are stunningly detailed, the character animation showcases the talents of the new team of animators, and the effects animation is beautiful.  The most impressive bits involve the Horned King, with his slow, methodical movements and his genuinely terrifying design (even if his face is a bit inconsistent throughout).  The fairies are also marvelously conceived... glowing and swarming around the main characters, looking just about flawless.  It's a real shame the film isn't available in high-definition.  My only gripe involves a scene where Taran and Gurgi stand on a mountaintop with pink clouds behind them, which are clearly live-action.  It blends very poorly, and is the only noticeable spot where the ambition exceeded the animators' reach.  I do, however, kind of love Elmer Bernstein's score, which mixes a sort of '50s sci-fi sound with bombastic orchestrals.

The Black Cauldron's biggest flaw is its lack of heart.  Spoiler alert, but Gurgi supposedly sacrifices himself at the end, and it's meant to be a tear-jerking moment.  I'm a sucker for getting choked up during Disney movies, but I felt absolutely nothing for this furry little creature sporting Geppetto's mustache.  There isn't enough character interaction, chemistry, or meat to anything that happens; too much is told and not shown.  Lloyd Alexander, the author of the original books, stated that he thought it was an enjoyable movie but had virtually no resemblance to his work.  Perhaps it was twelve years of grueling work, producers not knowing the audience, or trying to follow dark fantasy trends that are to blame.  Disney wanted to tap into that (previously untappable for them) "teenage boy" market, and unfortunately, the film is a failure in that regard.  But as a curiosity, swept under the rug by its creators?  An anomaly; truly unlike anything out there, animated in my favorite style?  With a fascinating history and mysteriously missing scenes of graphic violence?  I couldn't ask for anything more.


Creepiness rating: 8 undead Cauldron-born warriors out of 10

Friday, September 8, 2017

Oliver & Company (1988)

Hey man, if this is torture, chain me to the wall.

After the minor success that was 1986's The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's animation department was given a new lease on life.  CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg enacted a highly ambitious policy, one that planned for the studio to release one animated film per year.  That kind of workflow was unprecedented since the Golden Age, but it was this push for quality and quantity in equal amounts that soon lead to the Disney Renaissance.  So in 1988, Oliver & Company was the first of these "one a year" projects, and despite being a hit in theaters (even bigger than its Bluth rival The Land Before Time), it was received with lukewarm fanfare and is nothing but a forgotten footnote today.  I have more affinity for Oliver & Company than it deserves, but something about the uber-80s New York feel is so charming.  The voice over talent is really solid, and the content pushes that G rating in the same ways The Great Mouse Detective did.  I would never try to convince anyone that Oliver & Company is an underrated masterpiece, or that it holds a candle to Disney's best work, but there's a certain likability to the characters, setting, and music that makes it all work.

The story features a little neglected kitten named Oliver (Joey Lawrence) as he tries to make his way through the means streets of New York City.  Along the way, he meets a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), who is the epitome of cool.  He wears sunglasses, walks with a swagger, and just plain doesn't give a shit.  He even sings a song about it.  Oliver follows him home where to where his "gang" hangs out, among which are the likes of a feisty chihuahua named Tito (Cheech Marin) and thespian bulldog named Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne).  The dogs are owned by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a borderline homeless man who owes a huge sum of money to a gangster named Sykes (Robert Loggia).  He can't feed himself, yet he tries his best to provide for his dogs (mostly by training them to be pickpockets of sorts).  On his first day out petty thieving, Oliver ends up in the car of a rich little girl named Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who promptly adopts him.  He runs into some resistance at Jenny's place in the form of her pedigree poodle Georgette (Bette Midler), who can't fathom sharing the spotlight with a mangy kitten.

When I say, "makes it all work," I don't mean that the film works in the ways the creators intended it.  The very idea of taking Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and making it "hip and edgy" while throwing talking animals into the mix is gimmicky as hell.  But it's so unironically committed to that gimmick that it's actually kind of charming, albeit in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.  Narratively, the film is overstuffed with characters and subplots; Oliver barely feels like the main character in his own story.  I would have much preferred the film to focus on Dodger and Oliver's relationship and eschew the other dog characters (save for Tito, who steals the show with ease).  It seems like the emotional crux of the film should have hinged on Oliver making a choice between living a carefree but tough life on the streets and a safer, pampered existence on Fifth Avenue.  But the film is more concerned with slapstick humor and Fagin coming up with the money to pay off Sykes, which might have made a fine movie all on its own.  Instead, these two plots share the film's 75-minute runtime, stuffing it with side characters that exist mostly for their one-note jokes.

The hand-drawn animation really shows the next generation of Disney animators having tons of fun and pushing the limits of what animation could do at the time.  The character animation is full of energy, perhaps not capturing the animal nuance seen in Lady and the Tramp, but pushes for more cartoonish, broad emotions.  A little Looney Tunes-style comedy never hurt anyone, and the visual jokes work a lot better than the written ones.  The scenes between Fagin and Sykes are dark and stylish; anything to do with Sykes is really striking and memorable.  His menacing sneers, imposing size, and perpetual cloud of cigar smoke make him a visually memorable villain, if not necessarily a great character.  Like The Great Mouse Detective, he CG animation used on objects and vehicles throughout the film is achieved by animating the objects, printing them out on paper, and combining the hand-drawn characters by photographing it all on hand-painted cels.  The result is seamless blending, allowing Dodger to strut through a New York City full of moving parts and helping make the climactic chase scene through a subway tunnel more visceral.  I can't say anything reaches the levels of Mouse Detective's clocktower scene, but a particular shot of Dodger jumping on cars in traffic makes the city feel so alive and captures the feeling of being there.

The original songs are a bit of a mixed bag.  I actually kind of love "Once Upon a Time in New York City" and "Why Should I Worry," but "Perfect Isn't Easy" and "Streets of Gold" are bland and forgettable, and I actively hate the saccharine "Good Company" and the "Why Should I Worry" reprise.  So unfortunately from my perspective, the songs get worse as the film goes on.  "Why Should I Worry" has some of that "so bad it's good," qualities about it, as the song really pushes how cool Dodger is and how amazing his life is.  That being said, it's a really catchy song and the animation is at it's best here.  It would be a better moment if this was setting up a character dynamic between Dodger and Oliver that pays off at some point, like Dodger's question, "Why should I worry?" gets answered in the form of him becoming a pseudo-big brother.  But, as the horrendous hodgepodge of a reprise lets you know at the end, these dogs still don't give a shit, and why should they?  It's incredible what a giant leap forward The Little Mermaid would be musically only one year later, when Alan Menken and Howard Ashman teamed up to write some of Disney's all-time best songs.

I can always appreciate a little darkness in my animated Disney movies, and Oliver certainly has a bit of that.  The ending chase scene is surprisingly brutal; a dog gets electrocuted when he hits the third rail, and Sykes's death, while left mostly up to the imagination, is still surprisingly intense.  I've read that the film was initially intended to be much edgier; Oliver's parents would be murdered by Sykes's dobermans at the start, and the subsequent story would focus on Oliver's revenge.  Sounds a bit more interesting, no?  With a bit less forced sweetness in the Jenny relationship, less side characters, and more character development from Oliver and Dodger, this movie might have been great.  Some moments of heart do manage to shine during Oliver & Company, the best of which is probably when Fagin reads a bedtime story to his dogs, who are clearly all he has in the world.  The opening scene of Oliver being the last kitten in a "free kittens" box left sitting out in the rain is also kind of a heartbreaking moment.  So depending on who you are, the buckets of '80s cheese and charm alone might just make it worth the watch.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

For the past several years, I've been having hand-drawn animation withdrawals.  In particular, I've been lamenting the hibernation of Disney animation as of late; with no planned 2D projects in the works for the next several years, it sadly seems that I can't look to the future to get my fix.  So to the past it is!  As a child of the '90s, I grew up with the Renaissance greats and have watched them to death.  I've seen the Golden Age stuff more times than I can count.  So finally, I've decided to catch all the theatrically-released Disney films I've never seen from the '70s, '80s, and '90s.  On my journey thus far, I've "discovered" Robin HoodA Goofy Movie, The Rescuers, and The Rescuers Down Under for the first time, and watched Oliver and Company for the first time in many years.  However, I think my favorite of these discoveries is the first Clements/Musker production: the Sherlock Holmes homage, The Great Mouse Detective.  Not only was the film itself a joy to find, but I've come to appreciate what its modest success in 1986 meant for Disney's animation department (and subsequently, would mean for the animation industry as a whole).

Does The Great Mouse Detective have the greatest story ever?  I wouldn't say so, but it's spritely and fun enough to make up for it.  The film opens with a somewhat disturbing kidnapping of a young girl's father by a disfigured bat.  There's tonal dissonance right from the opening title card, as cheerful music bounces along while the ground is still wet with the young girl's tears.  I should mention that these are mouse people, and that all the characters are anthropomorphic mice, rats, and other small creatures, scurrying about London in 1897.  The now parentless mouse girl, named Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek), needs an ace detective to find out who took her father and why.  She seeks out the famed Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham) to solve the mystery, bumping into Dr. Dawson (Val Bettin), a former soldier, along the way.  When Basil and Dawson meet, there's an obvious Holmes/Dr. Watson dynamic that works surprisingly well.  Basil can determine exactly who a person is by the minute details of objects they own, scents they carry, and mannerisms they exhibit (just like the "real" Sherlock Holmes, who incidentally lives directly above him). Basil has no interest in helping Olivia find her father, that is until he realizes that taking the case could help him take down his arch rival, Ratigan.

Ratigan is a fantastic villain.  Hammy, sinister, funny, and voiced by the late, great Vincent Price, Ratigan always elevates the movie when he's onscreen.  I won't spoil the mystery plot (for those that haven't seen this thirty-year-old film), but I will say that it's a touch silly and clashes with the more grounded tone the rest of the film carries.  But it hardly matters, because Ratigan is so enthusiastic about it.  He's cruel to his subordinates, killing one in the middle of his vanity song by having his obese cat Felicia (Frank Welker) devour them at the ring of a bell.  The rest of the character interactions are great, with the strong personalities of Basil, Dawson, Olivia, Ratigan and his bat henchman Fidget (Candy Candido) bouncing off each other and clashing throughout the story.  I do wish that there had been a more emotional bond formed between Basil and Olivia, but there's still some solid character development.  The Basil/Dawson dynamic, however, is spot on.

A few things irk me about Aside from the aforementioned goofiness of the villain plot, there's also a sense that this is the first in a series of adventures for Basil and Dr. Dawson, which of course never came to fruition and probably was probably never supposed to.  The end result is a little unsatisfying given how much of the film is devoted to exposition and peeking into this mouse's-eye-view of London without letting us fully explore it.  Basil and Dawson disguise themselves as gruff sailors and head to a seedy bar called The Rat Trap, which is full of dynamic characters.  There's a full song and dance number that appears to function as an introduction for a new character, but when it's over, she's never seen again. What a waste!  At times it feels like a good pilot for a television series, wherein we meet characters and see locations briefly that will be important later on, but that isn't the case.  At least it's all aided by a very good score from Henry Mancini (who also created the Pink Panther theme).  It's very fun and playful, taking me back to a time when action/adventure movies had warm, memorable music.

Now this is all well and good, but I came here for the animation, so how does it hold up?  Tremendously well, I would say.  The character animation is what grabs you from the start, with Glen Keane's work on Ratigan emerging as the clear standout (though Basil's mannerisms are delightfully energetic). The backgrounds never reach the meticulous heights of the Golden Era (a scene that echoes Geppetto's workshop from Pinocchio calls attention to his), but they do capture the foggy, dreamy, and dark atmosphere of 1800s London.  I would have liked to see more shading on the characters, which would have helped bring out even more of that dark atmosphere and make the film look more dynamic.  It's also kind of a shock to my 2010s eyes to see so many Disney characters casually smoking cigarettes and pipes, drinking beer, and firing real guns.  It's more edgy than the typical animated family film, and I love every ounce of that.

Speaking of which, the climax featuring the internal gears of Big Ben is surprisingly intense, aided by some of the best computer animation mixed with hand-drawn characters I've ever seen.  See, the trick back then was to animate something like the gears from all the angles you want in the computer, print every frame out on REAL paper, color them with REAL ink and paint, then composite them with the hand-drawn characters on REAL celluloid, who are inked and painted the same way.  The result is animation that blends together better than digitally-composited elements ever could.  Although the Deep Canvas effect from something like Tarzan is more versatile, the eye still senses that there's a disconnect between the CG objects and the hand-animated ones.  But that Big Ben chase?  It's visceral, exciting, full of striking visuals, and it all looks seamless.

Don Bluth had left the Walt Disney company by this point (and coincidentally released his own mouse-centric film An American Tail the very same year), and while The Great Mouse Detective certainly has its own charm, I have no doubt that the story would hit harder emotionally if he'd been involved.  After the financial travesty that was The Black Cauldron, all Disney needed The Great Mouse Detective to do was not bomb horribly.  The company got its wish; the film made a little money, and more importantly, gave the incentive for the studio to continue with its animation department.  While The Little Mermaid takes all the credit for reviving Disney animation (and rightfully so), it would have never gotten that chance had Detective been yet another major failure.  The film itself is a slight thing; by all accounts cute and a bit padded despite its short runtime, but thankfully it doesn't play things too safe.  I actually wish Disney had turned this into a film series (it bizarrely never got one of those godawful direct-to-video sequels, despite being tailor-made for them).  It works as a good introduction to Sherlock Holmes, looks great, and has the scene-chewing Ratigan to keep things entertaining.  I still wish Disney was making new hand-drawn theatrical content, but if it means I can discover hidden gems like this one, then I guess that's not so bad.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017)

There are two types of beings in the universe...
Those who dance, and those who do not.

This damn Marvel Cinematic Universe.  So many films to keep track of, it's a wonder it works at all.  The model seems functional enough; release origin stories and team-ups regularly, each one expanding the universe in some way, setting up future films while also telling internally satisfying stories.  The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie is the crowning example of this; a great cast of characters, a fun McGuffin-centric adventure story in space, a killer soundtrack, and some of the best comedy writing in the whole of the MCU.  It was, however, lightning in a bottle.  So many things went uncharacteristically right at once, and I was absolutely certain that it couldn't be repeated.  I assumed a sequel would focus on trying to replicate that same lightning, and would be a vastly inferior film as a result.  Written and Directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is, thankfully, a worthy sequel to the first.  It may not be as light on its feet, but it gets points for coming close.

You "Earthers" have hang-ups...

We regroup with the Guardians by way of an action scene set to the tune of Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky," wherein the regrown Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dances his little heart out as the others struggle to take down a tentacled monster.  Midway through this sequence, I knew I was in good hands.  The film centers around Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as he meets a god-like alien named Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be his father.  The group is skeptical, especially Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has feelings for Quill but can't process them due to the horrific childhood she shared with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  All the while, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals highly valuable batteries from an exceptionally snobby race of golden-skinned aliens, which puts the Guardians on the run from Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his crew, who were hired to capture them.  While on Ego's planet, the group meets Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is something of a servant to Ego and has empathic powers that Drax (Dave Bautista), having learned to embrace humor and joy, finds endlessly amusing.

I've never felt such humor...

The script finds a very good balance of tone, keeping the humor character-driven and never pulling punches with its darker material.  One scene in particular, which involves Rocket, Baby Groot, and Yondu slaughtering dozens of people set to Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer," is probably the most darkly humorous scene in the whole MCU.  I welcome it, to be sure, but the casual violence, if often bloodless, does become numbing after a while.  This doesn't prevent the finale from reaching some high emotional points, and even managed to eek a surprise tear out of me, but some of the action goes on a bit too long and loses its sense of tension.  The plot is relatively thin, as it was with the first film, but there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.  The point of this series isn't necessarily to tell a complicated story, but to let us spend time with these characters.  Volume 2 excels at that.

We can jack up our prices if we're two-time galaxy savers!

I appreciated the visual inventiveness of the film; rather than generic space battles or typical 2010s future designs, we are treated to drones remotely piloted by machines that resemble 80s arcade games, the painterly planet created by Ego, and countless alien designs that are distinctive and full of character.  In fact, I was often frustrated that the film favored close-ups, obscuring the gorgeous production design and relegating the hard work of the make-up artists to fuzzy background details.  We've given the characters plenty of time to breathe and become developed, now we need to do the same for the world-building.  The practical effects are stunning, but they're far and few in-between; CGI is king here, and it has inconsistent results.  The designs are stellar, but the actual rendering of much of the animation isn't quite as sharp as it was in the first film.  Rocket, in particular, felt so tangible last time but now tends to float a bit more.  This is, of course, nitpicky as hell and hardly dethrones him from being my favorite character.  Plus, look at all the color! This is a movie that's not afraid to be pretty.

Die, spaceship!

The soundtrack continues to be an important part of what makes these movies so much fun (and good God, after Suicide Squad I can really appreciate when it's done right).  "Brandy" actually becomes an important metaphor for the main villain, and in a surprising turn of events, I really liked the way the villain was handled.  It could have been better;  there was a moment where the film squanders the potential for an "Evil Star-Lord," but the matter resolves too quickly.  But compared to the villains from the first film?  This is ten times better.  Yondu and Nebula walk a nice tightrope between being villains and heroes throughout the film, and their development is handled excellently.  Performances from the cast are generally great, especially when it comes to the comedic beats, but I think Pratt struggles a bit toward the end with what's supposed to be a dramatic moment (and I can't confirm this, but I do believe CGI tears were added to his eyes for added effect, which does not sit right with me at all).

Nobody has any tape...

While the comedy can be on par with the original, there are still duds here and there. Thankfully, the film moves fast enough to make you laugh again (and forget that the "Kurt Russell says he has to pee" joke even happened).  That's partially why this sequel isn't quite as nimble as the first; a few more jokes feel forced, the effects are a bit more cartoonish, and the pacing could be better.  Otherwise it's a good time; it's got a great soundtrack, tons of 80s nostalgic references (the PacMan scene had me dying), great use of color, surprising violence to go along with its charm (Baby Groot is so cute... Holy shit, he just killed a guy!), and good character development.  It's probably the strongest series in the MCU, maybe besides the Captain America movies, and I eagerly await Volume 3.

We are Groot.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

Can't you just be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man?

After much hype following his debut in Captain America: Civil War last year, we are finally treated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first real Spider-Man movie.  After Sony's (reboot helmed by Mark Webb), which came fast and went faster, it feels odd to have yet another big screen Spider-Man.  However, this time I'm on board for the change-up, even if the transition isn't perfect.  Some of my issues with Spider-Man: Homecoming derive from the title character operating as Iron Man's sidekick, which doesn't suit my preconceived notions of what Spider-Man should be.  Imagine if Batman gave The Flash special shoes, in his debut movie, that can make him run faster... and talk to him.  See, Peter's own well-known powers are undercut significantly by the Iron Man-like suit that Stark has provided for him (complete with a too-intelligent A.I. and more spy gear than James Bond).  The film is lightweight and enjoyable, and revels in the fun of being a superhero movie, but it's definitely a middling chapter in the Spider-Man franchise as well as the MCU.

I know you want to save the world... but you're not ready yet.

Following the events of Civil War (which are recapped here in a cute, home video-style movie), Tony Stark (Robert Downy, Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man lets Peter Parker (Tom Holland) a.k.a. Spider-Man keep his fancy new costume, but doesn't think he's ready to join up with the Avengers just yet.  Peter slowly detaches himself from school and his social life to spend more time as the web-slinger, but in a neat twist on most Spider-Man movies, there's not much in the way of dramatic crime to be fought.  The montage showcasing Spider-Man in a realistic Queens setting is charming, funny, and finds exactly the right note to establish this version of the character.  All the while, a former disaster-salvager-turned-advanced-weapons-dealer named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has developed a winged suit that allows him to fly and rob trucks containing alien power cells.  Naturally, Spider-Man gets involved in the action, and has to take down the flying dude (I'd call him The Vulture, but the film doesn't) while balancing his homelife with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and school crush Liz (Laura Harrier).

You were on the ceiling!

The story is mostly fine, it a little trite.  The humor is best when it comes from the characters, especially when it comes to the character of Ned, who seems happily aware that he's the best friend/tech adviser character in his own life.  When the humor is situational, it leans toward the cliche-ridden.  The aforementioned gadgets that Peter has at his disposal result in some good gags, and it's immensely satisfying whenever he's forced not to rely on them, but it adds this "junior secret agent" element to the movie that was probably unintentional.  Once again, when it focuses on the character relationships, the movie is at its strongest (especially the ever-complicating relationship between Peter and Toomes, who makes for a good villain).  The chemistry between Holland and Harrier is basically nonexistent, but Holland's interactions with the other principals is great.  The script needed some fine tuning, especially when it comes to moments that incite drama, but then quickly sweeps it under the rug.  Peter left his best friend alone at a party?  Ah, he was doing Spider-Man stuff, it's alright.  Aunt May was worried sick about Peter all night?  Oh, he lost his internship, all's forgiven.  It's all too consequence-free to have any real resonance.

I'll do anything to protect my family.

The action suffers from a similar problem.  It's all a bit too safe, and the choppy editing and camerawork only makes matters worse.  Spidey's fancy new suit makes it so that he can take down the villains with ease, deflating any sense of tension.  This does have a payoff toward the end, but it's ham-fisted and predictable.  Holland's performance carries it, to be sure, but the constant intervening from Iron Man and the endless barrage of meta jokes (that clearly want to be Whedon-esque but don't quite cut it) make everything less exciting.  Don't get me wrong about the suit, I actually love the way it looks.  The electronic eyes were a brilliant touch, giving an in-universe excuse to let Peter emote while still wearing the mask (akin to the comics without the suspension of disbelief).  The best action sequence takes place at the Washington Monument, and despite some gooey CGI Spider-Man moments (seriously, it looks like 2002 all over again), it's suspenseful and thrilling.  However, the climactic fight on board an airplane is just awful; busy, over-edited, and mostly filmed in shaky close-ups.  I sat there squinting at an enormous movie theater screen.

Just a typical homecoming...

The music and overall visual style of the film are par for the course when it comes to the MCU, which is to say that the music is bland and unmemorable and the visuals look washed out and standard.  Michael Giacchino, who is probably my favorite composer working today, teases us with a fantastic orchestration of the '60s Spider-Man theme song in the opening, only to replace it with a very cliched superhero score for the rest.  This coming from the man who wrote the music for The Incredibles, which has some of my all-time favorite superhero music.  Director Jon Watts wanted to ground the film's action, avoiding the swooping camera moves throughout New York City that defined the Raimi films and gave them their most iconic visuals.  This leads to a great gag where Peter has no buildings to sling to, but aside from a shot of Spider-Man riding on top of a train, doesn't allow it much in the way of memorable visuals.  I did appreciate the racial diversity of the cast though.  In a Queens high school setting, diversity should be obvious dressing, but it rarely is in Hollywood.  There's just not a lot of style on display, and with only intermittent moments of substance, Spider-Man: Homecoming commits the mild sin of being just okay at the end of the day.


Spoiler note:  The ending with Tony and Pepper finally getting together was nice, but it kind of sucks that they had a breakup and got back together entirely offscreen.  Maybe we needed an Iron Man 4.  Also, Aunt May finds out that Peter is Spider-Man through the exact same situation that his best friend did earlier in the film?  Very lame.  Also, Captain America's cameos were uber hilarious.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Cars 3 (2017)

I decide when I'm done.

It may be titled Cars 3, but it's really Cars 2.  The actual Cars 2 was more like Mater's Tall Tales: The Movie, which contrary to the rest of the world, I thought was just fine.  That sums up my opinion on the first film as well; a perfectly fine movie with stellar animation and sound, featuring a story and characters crafted with heart by John Lasseter.  Cars isn't up to the usual Pixar standard, but it's a solid little film about the values of slowing down and the importance of making genuine connections with other (car) people.  The world-building is shaky at best, and the humor is hit-or-miss, but having seen it again recently, I found it to be very charming.  That certainly colors my opinion of Cars 3, which delves a bit further into racecar Lightning McQueen's life and career.  He no longer has to deal with growing up, but the much more sobering issue of growing old.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is at the top of his game, winning races left and right while indulging in some good-natured ribbing with his rivals on the track.  One day, a rookie car shows up named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who's been designed as a next-gen racer with incredible speed and precision.  Storm wins the race, and soon after more next-gen racers who train on high-tech simulators and are overall better built (born? This is why good world-building is important).  With all of his former rivals retired, McQueen still gives it his all, but winds up in a racing accident that nearly puts him out of commision.  Now saddled with a new sponsor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), McQueen has to learn to accept the fact that he's getting older and considering retiring and selling his face as a brand name.  He makes a deal with Sterling to race one more time, and if he wins, he decides when he finishes.  Unlike his late mentor Doc Hudson (voiced through recordings of Paul Newman), who was also in an accident that forced him to quit, McQueen isn't ready to give up his dream career.  Helping him along the way is his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who prefers to train with simulators rather than in the real world, and that idealism that clashes hard with McQueen's "get dirty" sensibilities.

You can't turn back the clock.  But you can wind it up again.

The story seems predictable at first glance (a wash-up wants to make a comeback), but the script is surprisingly smart in this regard.  It takes far more interesting turns when the focus shifts to McQueen's (unromantic) relationship with Cruz, unearthing a poignant theme about what it means to pass on a legacy.  McQueen essentially has the opportunity to consider what his legacy will be, and if it can be objectified.  Is what you leave behind physically as important as who you influence?  Like any technology, who decides when we as people become obsolete?  These are not questions I thought I'd be asking myself after seeing Cars freakin' 3, so needless to say, I'm quite impressed.  The characters are very likable, there's some smart dialogue on display, and the story builds on the first film in a meaningful way, just like a sequel should.

The animation is ridiculously gorgeous at times, constantly trying to convince the eye that what you're seeing isn't cartoon cars rendered by a computer, but the real world with all its quirks.  The way the camera shakes during close-up shots of the races is beyond impressive, the '50s footage effect over old film looks ridiculously real, the expressions that somehow trick us into thinking that a character that is nothing but a head and wheels could possibly live comfortably; it all adds up to a tremendously entertaining viewing experience.  Randy Newman returns to score, and he infuses it with his unmistakable sound (even if it's more reminiscent of Toy Story than it has any right to be), and the songs are well-integrated (there's no Life is a Highway-esque standout, however).  It's a well-paced film as well, making nearly two hours (when you include the adorable preceding short Lou) fly right by.

You seemed so fearless.  I wish I knew what that was like...

Cars 3 may not win over anyone who already dislikes the Cars franchise, but for myself, it was a lot of fun.  The story takes detours into midwestern small towns just like the first film and inject them with this lived-in sense of hominess.  It's not an especially funny film (Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is relegated to being a background character for the better), but I did laugh quite a bit during the demolition derby scene, plus McQueen and Cruz have some charming banter.  There's still some iffy world-building; racial and sexual discrimination is an issue that I was pleased to see brought up, but it only made me ask more questions.  I did occasionally slink into what the hell am I watching? mode, as the world of Cars is a strange one to behold (the country-Western band made of cars in the bar scene threw me a bit).  But when it sticks to the racing scenes, the characters, and the thought-provoking themes of inclusion and legacy, Cars 3 is surprisingly pretty great.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Pirate's life...

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are quite the anomaly when it comes to Hollywood franchise filmmaking.  The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was an outrageous gamble in 2003.  It was a rousing success the likes no one could have predicted, partly due to Johnny Depp's amazing turn as Jack Sparrow.  The next two films, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, were produced back to back as an extremely ambitious and costly set, turning Pirates into a trilogy that could rival Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (financially anyway).   The Pirates trilogy, with Sparrow as its mascot, could have ended right there and been Disney's to milk through merchandising alone for all eternity.  Then On Stranger Tides came along and it all felt so... stale.  The spontaneity of Jack Sparrow was all but gone, the script doubled-down on cliches, and there was no creative spark.  It feels like nowadays, some people at Disney get together and say, "Hey, that new Pirates movie made a lot of money, wanna make another one?"  "Yeah! But not right now.  How about in a few years when we're bored?" We now have a series of five films that has no clear direction, and Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers for it.

This is my fate...

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of William and Elizabeth Turner, seeks the Trident of Poseidon in order to free his father from the Dutchman's curse.  He seeks the help of the infamous pirate Jack Sparrow (Depp), but tries in vain for nine years.  Now a young man working on a Navy warship, he encounters the undead pirate Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who also seeks Sparrow, albeit for purposes of revenge.  Meanwhile, in Saint Martin, a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) is being accused of witchcraft due to her interest and knowledge of astronomy (a running joke that gets old fast).  The paths of Carina, Henry, and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) all eventually cross, each of them seeking the Trident for their own reasons.  In the middle of all this is Jack Sparrow himself, a drunk, dysfunctional mess who can't pull off a decent bank robbery or hold down a small crew.

Tell him death will come straight for him...

The film begins rather strongly, starting from Henry's vantage point as he promises his father that he'll free him from the curse that we as the audience have been waiting (without much vigor) to get some closure on.  This is all well-intentioned, and had it been the focus, Dead Men Tell No Tales might have been much stronger.  The villains in the Pirates franchise are often striking and memorable, and the same is true in this case; I love everything about Captain Salazar and his ghost crew, who are visually interesting and have a solid backstory.  Javier Bardem is excellent in the role, and I'd go so far as to call his flashback story the best scene of the film.  Digitally de-aged Johnny Depp feels like Jack Sparrow again, and it's such a breath of fresh air.  Between the special effects and the location shooting, this is a really good-looking movie.  There are noticeable moments with CG effects, but there are enough gorgeous sets and prosthetics to make up for it.

What a horrible way to live...

What the film lacks most of all are the two things it needs to be successful: a dark atmosphere, but good comedy to balance it out.  In this regard, the first Pirates film is the only one in the franchise to achieve it effortlessly, but some of the jokes in Dead Men Tell No Tales are just painful.  Depp's not given good material to work with, but he plays everything too goofy and slurry.  It's as though he's doing a Jack Sparrow impression, not embodying the character.  There are expensive looking set-pieces abound that all have the potential to be really funny, and the actors are just not selling it.  Speaking of which, a romance is shoehorned in here between Carina and Henry, and the actors have no chemistry at all.  Everything to do with Barbossa is forced, including a relationship twist that is rushed and pointless.  It seems that at every turn, the film disappoints on a narrative level (save for the epilogue perhaps).

You are my treasure...

The action is big, loud, and dumb, but it's at least competent.  There are some visual gags that work in spite of their silliness (Jack swinging around on a guillotine as the blade repeatedly approaches his neck) and the climax takes place in an underwater chasm that just looks plain beautiful.  It's bloodless and awkwardly toned down at points (Salazar kills an unfathomable amount of pirates, but it's mostly offscreen), which hurts the sense of terror and genuine stakes.  At least the music puts the original Pirates of the Caribbean score to good use, showing up most modern blockbusters and their unmemorable, bland background music.  All of this is unfortunately meaningless if the script lets it down, which it does.  The overabundance of characters, bland romance, barrage of unfunny jokes, and tonal dissonance all add up to a film with a distinct lack of heart.

We should be allies...

It may seem like I expect too much out of a film based on a theme park ride, but Disney can do much better than this.  I say get Gore Verbinski back to direct one more of these monstrosities and then kill it.  Get good writers that have some affinity for the characters, and have some fun making a straight-up pirate movie.  Why all the needless mythology?  Just let the pirates be pirates and give them a good adventure.  The day that happens is far off I'm afraid, and unfortunately what we have in the meantime isn't very satisfying.


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Originally posted June 2nd, 2015

What a lovely day.

Wow. WOW. Wow. While I feel a bit unqualified to talk about a Mad Max movie (considering I haven't seen any of the first three films front to back), I do feel justified in reviewing Fury Road as an action spectacle.  Because honestly, fan of the series or not, the exhilaration and mastery of practical effects exhibited in George Miller's newest masterpiece is pretty much unprecedented in today's theatrical entertainment.

Let's face it, the post-apocalypse craze is getting old.  All these abandoned cities ravaged by zombies and futures with societies that only exist to act as class warfare metaphors are starting to look indistinguishable from one another.   But here comes Mad Max: Fury Road, the very definition of in-your-face action, apocalyptic wonder, and astonishing special effects.  The story is deliriously simple, but the world is so interesting and layered that simplicity was definitely the smart way to go.

In keeping with the original series' Cold War themes, Earth is a barren wasteland due to a nuclear war.  Max (Tom Hardy) is a former "cop" who now wanders aimlessly through the desert, either running from members of the War Boys (mutants who run a corrupt, savage society), or from his own personal past trauma.  He's abducted by the War Boys and used as a "blood bag" for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who appears terminally ill (though it's hard to tell when he lives in a society of deformed mutants).  When leader of War Boys, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), realizes his five wives (selected for breeding) have escaped with the help of the bad-ass truck-driving chick Furiosa (Charlize Theron), he sets out with his entire army to track them down, kill her, and take back what's his.  Max is taken on the pursuit to keep Nux alive, but he escapes and joins Furiosa on her quest to lead her and the other women to "The Green Place," where they hope they will be safe.

 What's most striking about Fury Road is its design; the vehicles that the War Boys drive are mind-blowingly creative.  A Mercedes Benz body with a tractor on the bottom; forties Dodge trucks equipped with monster truck wheels and machine guns; 30s Fords with metal spikes all over them... I could go on for hours.  However the winner for best design is clearly the moving rock stage with strapped-in drummers, dozens of amps and speakers, and a blind man in a red jumpsuit playing a flamethrowing guitar (Australian musician iOTA).  It might just be the coolest thing I have ever seen.

Beyond that, there are excellent performances all around, good character development, a script that relies on very little dialogue, and crash stunts that are insanely fun to watch.  I admire that most of the stunts appear to be done practically, and while CGI was used to enhance the environments and things like the giant sandstorm, the chases and crashes have incredible weight to them that's missing from a lot of modern action movies.  The make-up work on the mutants is bizarre and disgusting as well, aided by several actors who are actually deformed to help sell the idea.

These are, of course, all things I was hoping for.  What I couldn't have expected was an underlying feminist theme that runs beneath nearly every scene in the film.  There's an idea in this primitive future society that women can be property, made to wear spiked chastity belts, and used as sex slaves. Escaping that life is what Fury Road is at its heart.  They are rescued not by Max, but by Furiosa, who judging by her lack of a left arm, has gone through some incredible hardships no doubt related to her being a woman.  There's never any doubt that she can kick as much ass as any man in the movie.

While the action scenes are relentlessly fun, make no mistake that this is a dark movie that earns its R rating.   It's a savage world with savage rules, and the name of the game is staying alive (which several of the characters can't do).  Just as I feared the movie was taking itself too seriously, we get some great comic relief in the form of a few old ladies who've seen some serious shit, but at least have a sense of humor about it.  I know it's essential that I go back and watch the other Mad Max movies, but for now, I'm unbelievably satisfied with Fury Road. Some of it is bizarre, much of it is crazy, and all of it is brilliantly realized.