Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Classics: Home Alone and Home Alone 2

Continuing my series on Christmas movies and their endurance through the years in holiday entertainment, today I select a more contemporary favorite; one of my own generation. 

     Home Alone and its sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York are classics of the 90’s on their own, with or without the fact that they’re also considered Christmas classics by many. Kevin McCallister will always be the role that McCauley Culkin is most remembered for; a career high at a ridiculously early age. So why is this museum of 90’s caricatures a must-watch year after year?

     Home Alone combines the worst fears of every parent (their child being alone and preyed on by miscreants) and the worst fears of every child (being left behind), and turns it into something hilarious and lightly sentimental. Most young boys fantasize about how they would deal with “bad guys”; Home Alone runs with this idea, presenting that maybe a kid with an imagination might be a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, Home Alone is the actualization of this boyish fantasy to protect his home and fight off “bad guys,” while also lightly exploring the delusions of adulthood from the perspective of a kid. Home Alone isn’t just a juvenile’s dream of playing the soldier, but also the fancy of playing grown-up for real: braving the basement, picking out your own food, sole possession of the remote control, and all of the fun things about adulthood, with none of the real responsibilities.

     The fantasy aspect of the Home Alones is certainly not the only factor contributing to their appeal, but I do believe that it contributes significantly. The boyhood tale of valor versus the bad guys feels familiar to anyone who remembers what it was like to be a kid and to have such imaginations. But what is also familiar here is the unapologetic portrayal of family. Home Alone delivers multiple moments of frustration and drama, and very few of the maudlin displays of love and affection more often associated with holiday movies. Whether it's crass uncle Frank, plump and sweet Aunt Leslie, bullying big brother Buzz, or a devoted but exasperated mom, everyone can find that one family member onscreen that's a heck of a lot like someone they know in their own family. 

     Unlike the plethora of holiday-themed romance movies or feel-good family movies, the originality of Home Alone and its sequel Lost in New York are two of a kind that has been often imitated, but never duplicated, and certainly never surpassed. The Home Alones marry a Three Stooges style buffoonery with light sentimentality and the one thing every audience member can relate to: a difficult family. That combination, carried by character archetypes of the 1990’s and the suburban holiday backdrop, make the Home Alone movies a unique kind of entertainment that is one part wishful thinking (beating up the bad guys through ingenuity), one part realistic association (difficult family, holiday hubbub), and by now, a bit of nostalgia for those of us that remember the 90's. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas Classics: White Christmas

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be taking a look at a few choice Christmas movies that are considered classics, and talk a little about why I think these particular movies have endured over the years. What is it about these particular movies that makes them a must-watch year after year? What is it that has made these particular movies stand out and endure through time to be considered classics? 

I begin this series with an obvious choice, White Christmas.

     White Christmas is in every way, a quintessential Christmas movie. With the incomparable skills of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney as the leading voices, and the peerlessly charismatic Danny Kay tapping and dancing his way around Vera Ellen, it’s little wonder that White Christmas has stood the test of time to become one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time.

     Although White Christmas boasts Irving Berlin’s iconic songs and “the most fabulous music and mirth show in motion picture history” according to the movie’s tagline, it is neither of these things that, I believe, are the true reason why White Christmas has endured through the decades. Certainly no one can sing it like Bing, but the heart of White Christmas is gently hidden in the sweet lyric “just like the ones I used to know.”

     More than anything, White Christmas simultaneously mourns and celebrates a bygone era for America, and for its individuals. When we first meet Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kay), they’re dutifully entertaining their troops while deployed during WWII. When the war is over, the pair become hugely successful partners in the entertainment business. Bob Wallace immerses himself in workaholism to avoid being entangled with the bubbleheaded starlets he is necessarily surrounded by, while Phil Davis works tirelessly to try and get Bob to settle down and accept their new lives. A few subtle lines hint that Bob longs to find meaning and purpose in his work; something that the former captain has yet to find in show business. Maybe he doesn’t miss the war, yet as a viewer it’s clear that Bob is more at home standing on a makeshift stage on ruins in front of his fellow soldiers to raise morale, than he is consorting with showgirls backstage of elite clubs.

No character encapsulates this sentiment of seeking meaning and purpose more than General Waverly. There’s something in the life he used to know that is acutely lacking in his retirement. In the film’s most poignant moment, Waverly is publicly honored and remembered by his men for his years of leadership. The longing subtly aches for a company of men, a purpose to fight for, and the love and honor of the home country, just like they used to know. They don’t long for war, but for the comfort and warmth that coming home from war used to mean.

     Elsewhere, White Christmas relishes in what we call old-fashioned romance in the midst of grand song-and-dance pieces. Characters act selflessly, mischievously, nobly, and humorously. All of the hallmarks of a great romcom are present in White Christmas, and while that’s not what the movie is remembered for, it wouldn’t be the same without the sweet relationship between Bob and Betty in all of its 1950’s charm, or the awkward schemes of Phil and Judy driving the subplot. Truth be told however, the real chemistry here is between Phil and Bob, with their endless supply of witty lines endlessly thrown at each other. 

     White Christmas has become an all-in-one picture of the life, the holidays, and the friends “just like the ones I used to know” or wish we did. It’s an homage to a time (real or imagined) when patriotism was running high, romance was sweet and simple, and men would rise up to bring goodwill to their fellow man. Whether or not things ever were this way, the years upon years that White Christmas has been replayed have embedded this sentimental idea in our hearts, carried on the wings of a warm and inspiring story, and sealed with unforgettable music and mirth. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

     For a franchise centered on the God of Thunder, the Thor movies have been disappointingly lackluster. Well, over-lustered truth be told. Preposterous costumes. Overuse of color. Dialogue bogged down in its own pretentiousness. And just when it seemed like Thor might only be good as a small part of the Avengers ensemble, we get Thor: Ragnarok. Thor: Ragnarok is over-lustered with preposterous costumes, overuse of color, and pretentious dialogue, but delightfully embraces it with gusto, humor, and shameless self-awareness.
     Thor: Ragnarok parodies itself and its predecessors at every turn, flatly refusing to take itself seriously. Whatever Thor and The Dark World were aiming to be, Ragnarok doesn't care. If Thor and The Dark World had ambitions of being part of a serious franchise, Ragnarok casually tosses these hopes aside and then knocks back a swig of Asgardian ale, swaggering onward without a care. 

     Ragnarok decides early on that it won't be bothered with petty emotional arcs, and immediately dispels with the weakest points of the previous two movies with apathetic irreverence. The completely nonsensical romance between the God of Thunder and utterly boring earth scientist Jane Foster is mercifully over, and not even Thor seems to mind that too much. Odin passes away, and neither Thor nor Loki are affected beyond the healing powers of ten seconds' screen time. When Hela, the sister Thor never knew he had, shows up to reign sovereign over all nine realms and beyond, Thor never even asks why he's never heard of her, or wonders why his parents never mentioned her. Elsewhere, Hela unceremoniously disposes of Thor's sidekicks, and Thor never seems to notice. In fact, if you weren't paying attention, you may have entirely missed that Thor's best friends have been offed. It would seem that angst, drama, and pondering are the domain of Captain America, not Thor. And this works charmingly well in Ragnarok. 

     Whomever it was that decided that the third and final Thor movie could do without certain things was equally wise in realizing that there isn't a necessity for such things to be replaced. For example, Jane Foster is absent from Ragnarok, Lady Sif is nowhere to be found, and there's no love story of any kind in the movie. This decision alone buoyed Ragnarok out of the painful mediocrity that The Dark World left the franchise in. Ragnarok also avoids giving us too many villains and subplots. Hela is the villain, and everyone else is a nuisance at best. Not even Jeff Goldblum's absurd Grandmaster seems very threatening next to Hela's elk-from-Hades vibe. Speaking of Hela, true to the tone of the movie, Hela is an over-the-top villain, fitting perfectly into this absurd world of flashy colors and outrageous costumes. She's not a tortured semi-sympathetic villain, but a classically aristocratic evil who relishes in her nefarious ambitions.

     Back for his fourth turn as the bane of Asgard is Loki, ever vacillating between narcissistic mischief and dark ambitions. Predictably, Thor and Loki must team up again while contending with how often they try to get rid of each other along the way. Thor will never stop insisting that Loki can't be trusted, all the while trusting him anyway. Loki will never stop insisting he can trusted, all the while stabbing the backs of whomever is in his way. Everyone uses each other, and that's just the nature of the game. Thor knows that Loki will ultimately betray him again, so he uses him as long as he can. Loki knows that at some point he'll want to make another play for power, so he plays sides wherever best suits him.

     In the way of new characters, personally, I didn't see that Valkyrie brought very much to the table other than fan service, but since I've already gone to great lengths to explain how very un-serious Ragnarok is, I can't be overly critical about unimportant characters or gratuitous cameos. Speaking of the latter however, I was expecting to see more of Dr. Strange after the end credit scene in his movie, but it was a somewhat shoehorned moment. The only real purpose for it seemed to be putting Cumberbatch and Hiddleston on screen at the same time, and reminding the audience that they're all in the same universe. But since Strange's otherwise unnecessary cameo provided a few more moments to chuckle about, I'm not complaining. Ragnarok also introduces Skurge as a sort of accidental henchman, who is likewise not particularly important, but has his moments here and there before traveling an utterly predictable road in the finale.

     The strongest point of Thor: Ragnarok is the effortless chemistry between Thor and Loki. The brotherly dynamic between Thor and Loki never wears off, and as always, you can't help but hope that they can work things out long enough to stay onscreen together as long as possible. Yet even when they inevitably double-cross each other, there's a playful mischief in it that's oddly endearing.

     Thor: Ragnarok is quite simply, fun. The film walks the perfect line of comedy without making itself into a parody, and keeps just enough relevant story in the mix to make it interesting and worthwhile. Ragnarok may not top any lists of greatest superhero movies, but it towers over its other Thor predecessors, boldly and hilariously taking its own trippy and somewhat un-heroic path. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Jurassic Park: Live in Concert

     Few experiences are as poignant as the marriage of exquisite instrumentation to perfect visual accompaniment. It's a form of art that has been exemplified through film, and conquered by visionaries like John Williams. The delicate tapestry of melodic inflections, woven into the most intense, regal, or somber moments of a movie scene, wields a power so mesmerizing, that evermore can a piece of music evoke adventure, heroism, wonder, fear, reverence, victory, or majesty.

    Of the many symphonic glories brought to the world of cinema at the hands of John Williams, one of my personal favorites is Jurassic Park. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Jurassic Park with a live orchestra accompaniment. I'm not sure I can accurately describe my excitement at reliving one of my favorite childhood films with the added addition of the National Symphony Orchestra, but suffice to say that I was eagerly awaiting that moment when the lights dim, the screen comes to life, and the orchestra begins its hypnotizing dance. 

     I expected to feel the music reverberating through the hall, and I did. I expected to appreciate how many individual talents are needed to produce the sound of music, and I did. I expected to enjoy seeing one of my favorite childhood movies again in an entirely unique setting, and I did. 

     What I did not expect was how much the live orchestra would change the experience. I did not expect to become so much more aware of light portions of music I hadn't noticed before. Perhaps naively, I did not expect to feel actual chills when the signature anthems struck up. And most interestingly, I did not expect the presence of the live orchestra in the semi-open air theater, surrounded by trees rustling in the breeze, to create an experience so immersive that it restored the tension and adventure to a movie I have seen dozens of times. Particularly the scene where a jeep is fleeing a charging T-Rex, I was surprised to find myself tense. I had not forgotten how the scene unfolds or who would ultimately leave the island, but the subtle creeping rise of an ominous harmony captured me in a way that completely caught me off guard. 

     The idea of movies with a live orchestra is a unique and beautiful concept, made all the better by it not being just any movie, but one with a score worthy of the National Symphony Orchestra or others like it. Jurassic Park was my second movie experience with a live orchestra, and even with a few audio issues needing quick correction, I hope to attend many more. Yet it's hard to imagine that many experiences could surpass this particular one. Not only did the music soar with stunning authority through the cool and breezy full moon night, Jurassic Park is also a glorious bit of nostalgia. How can your heart not swell when the T-Rex reclaims the ruined visitors' center, lets out a mighty roar, and the classic theme bursts majestically in honor of the prehistoric queen? And with a live orchestra, the heart doesn't just swell, but almost stops altogether. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thoughts on the future of Star Wars

     A few years back when it was announced that Star Wars was going to return in Disney's hands, I promptly wrote about all the pitfalls that I hoped the new saga would avoid, in a post titled "Star Wars: What Not to Do." I'm glad to say that they mostly followed my advice (because Disney follows my blog and cares about my opinion), but now I look to the future of movies bearing the name Star Wars and feel a strange sense of cautious foreboding at the future of the franchise.

     After the beautiful success of The Force Awakens, it was somewhat inevitable that an opportunistic company like Disney wouldn't limit themselves to the saga. In fact, true fans have been calling for spin-offs for years to explore the expanded universe and its fascinating characters like Darth Bane, Grand Admiral Thrawn, or the Knights of the Old Republic. Disney (wisely, but regrettably) cast the expanded universe of books and material aside to reinvent as they see fit, counting only Lucasfilm properties as binding. Basically, only the movies (even the bad ones, sadly), Clone Wars cartoon series, and Rebels cartoon series are considered true canon now. But the excitement has been reignited, and Disney is excitedly lining up future movies within the galaxy far, far away.

     Personally, my excitement about all of this is cautiously contained. I loved The Force Awakens and eagerly anticipate the finale of the Skywalker saga and the ripple effects of it. Meanwhile, there's a Han Solo origin story in the works, a Boba Fett origin story in the rumor mill, and a Death Star origin story (Rogue One) already on DVD and Blu-Ray after a successful run at the box office. Yet somewhere within, I can't help but start to wonder if Star Wars as a franchise is treading towards the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and will eventually run the risk of doing too much, and wearing out. In a recent post, I predicted that the comic book movie genre may be hitting its twilight years, due simply to an overage of movies in the genre, and a shortage of original stories remaining. Star Wars needs to approach its coming years with caution and control to avoid a similar overdose.

     I will admit that Star Wars has a ways to go before it will seem too overdone, but Rogue One, after a tumultuous time in filming, was received with mixed reviews, and the Han Solo origin story has already been met with grievous amounts of trouble in production. Where Marvel introduced the main players in individual movies and then gave us Avengers as the ensemble movie, Star Wars is almost doing the same thing, but backwards. We already had episodes IV-VI to introduce us to the ensemble that included Han Solo, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and the Death Star, and now they're going back to show us where these entities came from (though in the case of Darth Vader, we already got that story... cringe). Essentially, Star Wars seems to be tampering with the idea of following the trend that is currently dominating nerd-dom entertainment, namely, pursuing origin stories for just about everyone.

     Here's part of the problem though: when Marvel decided to explore Wolverine's backstory, Hugh Jackman was there to reprise his role as the iconic character he created and see it through to the end. Star Wars doesn't have that option, which means that particularly as regards the Han Solo movie, a young unknown actor is now tasked with filling impossibly large shoes that have only ever been filled by the man who made the character iconic. No one but Harrison Ford has ever done Han Solo, and to ask someone else to try severely limits the next actor, and automatically puts a certain unforgiving rigidity on the audience's expectations.

     If the Han Solo movie does even moderately well, I can guarantee that there will be an instant surge in production plans for more spin-offs, and really that wouldn't be the worst thing, provided it's done right. And in order for it to be done right, I strongly believe that Star Wars needs to get away from the core story of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, etc. Rogue One had the right idea at its core to use completely new and hitherto unknown characters, even if the execution played out in polarizing ways. But in order for Star Wars to not become the next MCU, I would argue that Star Wars needs to get further away from its origins, rather than continuing to exploit them.

     If I'm being honest, which I always am, we don't need to know Han's backstory; we've never needed to know. He's always been fine as is, fortuitously dropped into the Mos Eisley Cantina with murky motives and a certain moral ambiguity. Where he came from and how he came to be the Han we know is just as good a story untold. That's not to say I've never wondered, but from a purely cinematic perspective, while it might be fun to see how Han came to be the smuggler we meet in A New Hope, over-exposition can absolutely rob a story and character of its gravitas. This very point is what birthed proposing watching the saga movies in "Machete Order."

     Perhaps the best stories yet to be told don't stem from stories that have already been told. What kinds of evils did the Jedi battle before the Empire began its rise? Circa episode 1, the Jedi confidently state the Sith have been extinct for over a millennium; well what happened there? Who were the Sith of a millennium ago? Who were the warriors on the Dark Side before Palpatine, Dooku, and Vader? Who were the Jedi of the Old Republic? The clones-- what are the psychological effects of the accelerated growth and having an entire army of identical faces, each as expendable as the next, with no expectation of surviving the war? These are stories that Star Wars can explore without damage to the parent stories, characters, or actors, while breathing actual new life into the galaxy. Let's hear no more of Death Stars and super-weapons; let the current Rey story-line finish its run, and then let Luke, Han, Leia, and their friends rest in peace.

There's a whole galaxy far, far away to explore.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Closing of the Comic Books

     Someday in the far off future, should the world endure that long, anthropologists will study the current generation and determine that the sheer volume of comic-book based movies between the years 2000 and 2020 have some sort of far-reaching implications on the values or mental health of the era. I won't disagree. Of the top ten highest-grossing films between 2000 and 2009, three were comic book movies: Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and The Dark Knight; this being a decade that also boasted Avatar, the Passion of the Christ, and all of The Lord of the Rings (IMDB). Of the top ten highest-grossing movies from 2010 to now, three have been comic book movies: The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Dark Knight Rises (IMDB)Between the various adaptations of Batman, Spider-man, Superman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Green Lantern, X-Men and its spin-offs, Ant-man, Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and all the movies yet to come, there is no shortage of superheroes in all shapes and sizes. With so much overload on these stories, one has to wonder when it's all going to collapse.

     I want to take a moment to look at the evolution of the trend, particularly as regards the actors. About twenty years ago, comic book movies were so much of a novelty that audiences were relatively forgiving of cheesy writing and mediocre acting, as long as the story was moderately engaging and the visuals impressive. Thankfully, when the trend of comic book movies was still its prime, it raised the bar on multiple elements of quality, acting included. The success of Iron Man, for example, could be attributed almost entirely to Robert Downey Jr's magnetism and charisma. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight. Marvel and DC alike have managed to use renowned, respected, and popular actors and directors (many of whom are Oscar winners and nominees), which has further driven the point that comic book movies are no longer just cinematic fodder, but a lucrative genre with a broad audience and beautiful stories to tell. At least that's how it was.

     At the time of The Avengers, the comic book trend was at its peak, and the movie not only grossed enough to claim the summer movie season, it scored an admirable 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and joined the highly-coveted billion dollar club; a group that hosts Titanic and Avatar among its members. By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron rolled around, every main feature character (except the Hulk) had at least two of their own movies, and the second Avengers installment rolled in at an unfortunate 75% on Rotten Tomatoes.

     The Dark Knight continues to be hailed as one of the greatest sequels ever created of any movie genre, boasting performances and plot twists that pushed boundaries in all the right ways and transcended genres with its layered plot. Sadly however, despite grossing over a billion dollars at the box office, the follow-up movie The Dark Knight Rises was widely panned by critics and audiences as director Christopher Nolan's long-expected fall from grace, and a woeful close to an otherwise sterling franchise.

     The Amazing Spider-Man reboot will forever be an incomplete trilogy, leaving the open ends of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 unresolved while yet another actor steps up to be Peter Parker for the third distinct adaptation of the character. Neither of the Thor movies did very well on their own with critics or mainstream audiences. The crushingly bad reviews of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad sent Warner Brothers into a frenzy to replan their launch of The Justice League. For the moment, Wonder Woman may have saved them, but they have a long road mapped out with more potential for flat tires than smooth cruising. 

    In this era of movies, it's hard to say if franchise commitments are job security or career killers. Hugh Jackman played Wolverine nine times before his finish in Logan. Samuel L. Jackson will have been Nick Fury at least nine times by the time Marvel is finished with him. Robert Downey Jr. has now been Tony Stark eight times and counting for upcoming movies. All the main members of The Avengers have donned their respective personas at least two or three times (exception: Hulk). I'm not all that worried about the careers of Jackman, Jackson, and Jr. yet, but not everyone involved in this trend is as firmly established in Hollywood as these men are, and with commitments to a role that can now last over a decade, it stands to reason that some unfortunate actors will be the victims of typecasting. With the current overload of comic book movies, what might have previously been a "breakout role" is now just another superhero. Does anyone but me remember who played Superman before Henry Cavill? And I don't mean on Smallville, although I haven't seen that guy around much either. Cavill is probably the most skilled as Clark Kent that we've seen in recent years, but by the time DC Comics is finished with the Man of Steel, will anyone be able to see him as anything else? Can Chris Hemsworth carry a movie if he's not Thor? Recent Thor-less Hemsworth movies seem to say no. Tobey Maguire's post-Spidey resume hasn't exactly been packed out. Is it that the aforementioned individuals never had much skill to begin with, or is it that typecasting is real? Arguments can be made for both cases, but it still amounts to undesirable outcomes for the individuals.

     I would present that until the last decade or two, cinematic technology was too limited to believably portray superpowers as comic books portray them. For this reason, the advent of special effects has, in a way, birthed a genre that could not have existed previously under lesser technology. While there were always a few movies here and there over the years, it wasn't until CGI that the fullness of what a superhero could do was able to be adequately explored onscreen. All that to say, the comic book movie surge that we have seen, especially over the last decade, is largely a result of a completely new genre bursting onto the scene. Once the ground was laid and a few bold films proved that Batman and Iron Man could be taken seriously, comic book movies began dominating every summer box office. Yet for that nuclear boost of quality, it seems that the genre has faded back into a realm where "serious" actors and stories are harder to find, yet the movement as a whole is desperately trying to prove that they can still do serious. However, as Batman v. Superman proved, hype is a pretty flimsy umbrella to bank under, and with the onslaught of Marvel and DC movies dominating shelves, theaters, and upcoming releases, it seems that hype is starting to wane.

     Why is that? Well, how many origin stories can you really have before they all start to look and feel the same? Within currently established characters, there are only so many plot avenues that haven't been explored. Because so many of these movies overlap their companion films in some way, surprising character turns are forced to be limited in order to avoid repetition. For example, let's say that suddenly Tony Stark went on a quest to save his best friend (Rhodey, I guess) from dark brainwashing. We'd shrug and say "Steve Rogers already did that." While I know that there's no way that any studio is NOT going to keep capitalizing on the revived interest in comic book characters and stories, the relentless overload is starting to sour. And while I'm sure that for Marvel or DC to take a break would be missing an opportunity to exploit a heightened mainstream acceptance of what was previously a narrow field of loyalists, this exhaustion of superhero films is sacrificing otherwise good stories on the altar of hype.

     Every time I think to myself that the pool is about to dry up, one of the two major distributors pulls another one out of their hat, like Captain America: Civil War, Logan, or Doctor Strange. As I write this, DC and Marvel have sent forth their best efforts to face off at the summer box office in the forms of Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. We already had Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 earlier this year, and still have Thor:Ragnarok and Justice League yet ahead before Christmas. And yet, is there not some sense of fatigue over it all? Does not some part of me recognize that obligation is beginning to preside over interest? With a few exceptions, movies are beginning to become billion-dollar episodes, with every other movie being the pilot episode of some "new" story that really isn't all that new, no matter what color the spandex is.

     Analysts have argued that the superhero genre saved Hollywood in an era where movie interest was seriously waning in favor of gaming movements. Perhaps the adrenaline shot the genre has offered explains why A-list actors like Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr. are willing to jump on board. But true to the nature of the evolving entity that is the audience, it simply can't be satisfied for too long on the same diet. Steven Spielberg predicted two years ago, "there will be a time when superhero movies go the way of the Western" (Chitwood, 2015); a forecast that seems ever closer as box office numbers spike and fall with dizzying abruptness.

     It's been fun to watch Tony Stark strut his way through his many quests, inspiring to see Steve Rogers grasp what being Captain America means, and certainly engaging to see Bruce Wayne finally be an interesting character. But when will even the strongest of these finally have no new stories to tell, no new tricks up their sleeves, and go the road of the over-visited Captain Jack Sparrow? Surely that time is coming, but not before every character has had their own trilogy plus ensemble trilogy, and a few cameos in one another's stories. No matter what kind of impossible odds have been overcome to save the world, there is always another post-credit scene to remind us that the stakes will be even higher in the next movie. To quote Rolling Stone "When every movie is a can't-miss one-of-a-kind event, nothing is" (Bramesco, 2016).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


     The story is over.

     "There are no more guns in the valley."

     When you come to the end, how do you process the fullness of the book that has now closed with a resounding thud? How do you grasp, appreciate, and grieve the illusory relationship that has now ended?

Spoilers throughout. 

     When Logan begins, there is an undeniable sense that we have reached the final page. It's clear that a great deal has happened. The world couldn't stay mutant-friendly, and Logan himself is back to trying to live under the radar and just get by. In his care is a fragile and often dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, stripped of his once-dignified manner by age and disease, reduced to a wizened and crass old man. Whatever honors and prestige they once had from their heroic deeds is now gone. They are the heroes that the world forgot, the saviors that have been turned on. There are no more missions to save the world, just a few more lethargic and exhausted breaths before the metaphorical sunset.
     Unlike X-Men movies past, Logan is painfully inglorious. No one is battling advanced technology, dodging oversized robots, or fighting vigilante mutants with frightening superpowers. No cities are falling or terrified populations fleeing. There is no league of heroes swooping in to save the day in grandiose displays of teamwork and camaraderie. Here, there are just rolling tumbleweeds and uncouth thugs in the dusty town hiding a few surviving mutants. Maybe the last surviving mutants.

     Hugh Jackman brings a calloused fatigue to Logan that adds weight to every movie appearance prior-- suddenly all of those fights and losses feel cripplingly burdensome; the consequences of being hitherto immortal are coming due. In many ways this isn't the Wolverine we've watched over the last seventeen years, and yet Jackman's tired and outraged Logan is in every way faithful to the character he has carefully crafted over the course of several movies. Throughout this harrowing final chapter, Jackman unleashes Wolverine's primal fury while still making Logan sympathetic in the quieter moments, and ultimately heroic. Logan never wanted to join a fight for something greater than himself when we met him all those years ago, but he was drawn in because a girl needed help. And so it comes full circle with Logan, the Wolverine, once again resisting getting involved, but finding he can't avoid it, because a girl needs help. While Jackman's final performance as Logan is impeccable throughout, no moment shines forth his talents as an artist more acutely than when he stands by Charles' grave. Struggling to find words, each subtle movement of his expression is riddled with anguish, remorse, devastation, and anger, yet somehow restrained behind his tall and muscular exterior. At least for a moment, and then the dam breaks.   

     Patrick Stewart as a now degraded Charles Xavier is particularly effective, if difficult, to watch. The man who once established sanctuary for mutants and spent his life lobbying for mutant equality is now frail and broken, his once brilliant mind now deteriorating under the effects of a mutant-type Alzheimer's. Though it's unlikely that Stewart would garner an Oscar nomination for this role, it would be well-earned. His perfectly balanced depiction of mental disintegration, end-of-life regrets, and occasional comic levity weave flawlessly with his ability to respect the effects of age without mocking them. Seeing the once distinguished Charles now reduced to a discarded senior is painful, but executed with immaculate sensitivity. Consistent with the oppressive injustice of how Charles' twilight years play out, is the manner in which he exits this world. Charles should have quietly met his end on his beautiful estate, surrounded by the many mutants he helped over the years, and his old friend Erik nearby. But this is not the world of the X-Men anymore. Instead, just as his mind opens to allow him to absorb the fullness of all that has happened, he is brutally murdered in his bed with scarcely the chance to impart last words. There is only Logan and Laura to mourn him now and to stand by his unmarked grave and weep. 

     The combination of absolutely flawless performances by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and the history behind these two characters are what make Logan the difference between a visceral but truly beautiful valediction, and a tasteless indulgence in graphic violence. Make no mistake, Logan unleashes its violence in a way that no X-Men movie has ever been allowed, and the up-close camerawork ensures that no pierce of flesh or shatter of bone is hidden. And yet in all of the literal heads rolling and blood-spilling, every burst of action feels appropriate and organic rather than obligatory, which sets it apart from your average action movie. At no point does Logan feel like its scenes are merely fulfilling an expectation for the genre, but uses even the limb-slicing, skull-puncturing moments to serve its story. For example, just how dangerous is Laura? One action scene will answer that question and simultaneously reveal how hardened she already is.

     The villain of Logan is not who you would think. While there are despicable humans that pursue Laura with no qualms whatsoever about putting her to sleep like a terminally ill dog (a fate that many of the other children suffered), they're just humans. The true force that Logan and Charles are fighting against is time itself. It was once said, "Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves."  With the effects of age creeping up on Logan and Charles, their mortal time is running out. Charles can't be left alone or he might have a mental episode that could cost lives. Meanwhile Logan's eyesight is fading and his wounds aren't healing like they used to. With only a brief window to get Laura to the Canadian border, time is running out for her as well. Even if everything goes according to plan, Logan and Charles can never go back to how things were; their best hope is to set themselves on a boat and succumb quietly to time's assault. The battle will be lost eventually, the question is just how long they can delay the inevitable surrender.

     The unfolding tale is not really of two superheroes ending, but an achingly familiar tale of regret, failure, and age. Due to an erasure of memory seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the Logan we know has never held a hope of a normal life. The history that Logan has lived through and the looming end that he faces touch on a particularly tender and personal heart-string that no one wants to acknowledge. Logan forces us to reckon with not only the fear of failure and the inability to fulfill the most important promises, but living with that failure, and having no more chances to fulfill those promises. Example: "'s near the water."

     Logan himself has lived a life of bloodshed, and though he's never been the fatherly type, his final words to Laura are "don't be what they made you." They made her to be him. Laura has already been a killer, but it's not too late to get off that path, which is Logan's final hope for her; to escape the life of pain and regret that he has lived. Just as so much of Logan addresses fears, regrets, and failures, Logan's final moment touches on the fear of so many parents: that their child will be like them. Laura's final words over Logan's grave seems to indicate that she understands his words as she quotes Shane in a poignant eulogy: "A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can't break the mold. There's no living with the killing. There's no going back. Right or wrong, it's a brand. A brand that sticks." 

     At its heart, Logan is a farewell. Rarely has a character of such longevity had such a perfect departure. In an age where franchises wear out their characters so thoroughly that it becomes hard to care anymore (ahem, Pirates of the Caribbean), Logan faces the end with unflinching boldness. Logan pays great respect to where the story has come from, but maturely abstains from hand-holding in terms of backstory. A few broken lines about "the Westchester incident" vaguely reference a cataclysmic event that presumably precipitated the end of the mutant era, but Logan doesn't reveal it outright. Very little dialogue is dedicated to referencing previous X-Men movies, and yet Logan still manages to be a perfect finale to the saga of the character. Storm, Rogue, Magneto, and others have already been reborn as the franchise spins into new adventures, but Logan ends the arc of Wolverine with such perfect closure, that there is not only little hope of ever seeing Wolverine again, there is no desire; such a revisiting would cheapen this final opus. 

     The heartbreak of Logan is complex, manifold. A character spanning seventeen years of cinema is decidedly finished. Logan, the Wolverine, could always come back from anything, and he always did. Part of Logan's tragedy is that he was always destined to watch everyone around him succumb to mortality while his body spat the bullets back out. Part of the attraction of superheroes is the fantasy that people with a little extra gifting could accomplish extraordinary things that normal humans would shrink away from. And so the heartbreak of Logan is not only in the conclusion of a loved and enduring character, but in the death of a dream. Logan takes that childhood fantasy that some characters are untouchable and constant, and forces that child within to acknowledge the all-too painful reality that even our most revered heroes must one day walk a road from which there is no return. Logan, the Wolverine, is gone, and with him, the childish dream that he never would be.

     And yet, how strange that such a heartbreaking swan-song should be so exquisite.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


     By now anyone who's read a few of my posts knows I like sci-fi. Back in the day I was a real Trekkie for The Next Generation. I guess I still am in my heart. That being the case, it should come as little surprise that I would be interested in Passengers, not only because of the setting, but also because I'm attracted to stories that deal with the psychological effects of prolonged isolation (The Martian, Castaway, even Interstellar visited this theme).

     Passengers was marketed to look high-adrenaline with the added twist of there being only two people awake on a ship that won't complete its course for another ninety years. In reality, Passengers is slow and reflective, showing how one or two people might live if they were trapped on a luxury spacecraft with no other company and no means of escape, seemingly to live out their days in isolation. While there are a few moments of action and suspense, these are not at all defining features of the movie.

     It would pretty much be impossible to delve into this sufficiently without treading on a mild spoiler. That being said, this particular plot point is revealed early in the movie, it's just something they didn't want to ruin in the trailer. So here's your official spoiler warning for this review. The question that Passengers seeks to explore is, when a man is drowning and he pulls someone down with him, although not right, does it make it forgivable because he's drowning? This question is posed early in Passengers, and then spends the remaining 75% playing out the consequences of an individual's choice to pull someone down; namely Jim's decision to wake up Aurora.

     Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from cryosleep on a luxury space-liner 90 years early, and he's the only one awake among hundreds of other passengers and crew members. He attempts to send a message to earth, but his message won't be answered until long after he's died of old age. He can't break into the room where the crew members are sleeping, and all his hopes of reversing this glitch gradually die away. Days pass, months pass, and despite his efforts to fix his problem, he is alone and will live out his days in this manner long before anyone will ever know what happened to him. Over a year in complete solitude passes, and Jim is still facing living out his life in total isolation, with only the android bartender for human-like company. It's a dismal prospect, and Jim even contemplates suicide after the months he's spent alone. He's truly drowning in an endless, silent depression for which there is no comfort or escape, only the vastness of the universe for him to be lost in for the rest of his days.

     In this crushing desolation, he starts to ask himself if he could be forgiven for waking someone up; someone in particular. In the year of loneliness, Jim falls in love with one of the passengers, Aurora, destined to wake up on a new planet in 90+ years. He reads her writings, watches her interviews, and laments that the perfect woman is within his reach, but he'll never meet her unless he does the criminally unthinkable, which he eventually does.

     Hollywood is no stranger to taking unsavory but physically attractive characters and romanticizing their heinous depravity, whether that's eroticized abuse, stalker-like behaviors disguised as protective and dedicated, unhealthy obsession, or any number of other deviant vices. However, Passengers doesn't condone or romanticize Jim's decision, and he does face consequences (though perhaps not in the way that critics would have hoped). The gravity of Jim's actions are by no means skirted over simply because he's good-looking. Passengers labors to clearly demonstrate Jim's compromised mental state from his prolonged isolation. He agonizes for weeks before the crushing darkness of space finally wears him down and he tampers with Aurora's cryosleep pod, causing her to wake up. Jim fully comprehends the implications of what his choice would mean for this woman, understands the life he would be condemning her to without her consent, but he's also grasping for his own reason to live. And without any company, there's no one to tell him how bad an idea this is. Later in the movie a character observes of Jim's actions, "the drowning man will always try to drag somebody down with him. It ain't right, but the man is drowning."

     The setting of space is a tricky one, being both beautiful and mysterious, but also dangerous and ominous. In one particularly emotional scene while Jim is still alone, he dons a spacesuit and goes outside the spacecraft to float, tethered to the ship by a long leash. Surrounded by the majestic beauty of space, its infiniteness, vastness, and splendor, he can't celebrate it, can't share it, and can't escape it. He just drifts, encompassed by the dark and silent universe, literally tied to a place where he will live and die alone in a seemingly endless nothing where no one is even awake to care. His eyes fill with wonder, and then with tears as he takes in the great emptiness around him and inside him. It's a beautiful, stirring moment woven with melancholy music and executed with pristine attention to the complexity and despondency of Jim's emotional state.

     Any time a movie takes the bold choice of being carried by a skeleton crew of actors, it offers a rare but risky opportunity for the actors to show what they can do on their own. In the case of Cast Away, The Martian, or Gravity, the actors captured copious amounts of critical praise, and even the attention of the Academy. Passengers doesn't quite reach that level, but it would be unfair to imply that Passengers was made up of mediocre acting. For Jennifer Lawrence, she is at that peak of popularity wherein she can hardly do anything wrong, and she's already proven herself to be capable of demonstrating a broad spectrum of emotions. For Chris Pratt however, I've wondered if he's truly versatile, or if he's another Tom Cruise who will play the same type of action hero again and again and remain absurdly likable, but not have a particularly diverse body of work. Well, while his true element is still in humor and lightheartedness, he actually does a more than decent job with the drama. Ultimately I think that audiences will prefer Pratt as Star Lord (Guardians of the Galaxy) and in similarly cocky roles (like Magnificent Seven), but he is at least capable of going deeper. 

     All that being said, to imply that Passengers is an especially deep movie might be overdoing it, but it's a more thoughtful piece than the promos would have you believe. While there are certainly moral and ethical questions raised by the uniquely designed circumstances, the story is more dedicated to the relationship than the heavier themes. Just as well, too, because spending too much screen time exploring such ponderings would make for an exceptionally dull bit of entertainment. The inevitable romantic relationship that develops between Jim and Aurora is fun to watch unfold, even if entirely predictable, as is the devastating fallout when Aurora learns the truth of why she is awake. Side note, at one point, Aurora's rage brings her to almost killing Jim in his sleep, but she refrains. I'm tempted to think that had she followed through with this act, an interesting and horrible cycle would have been born wherein eventually the loneliness would overwhelm her, and she would wake up someone else, causing the pattern to repeat. Thankfully this isn't what happens, and Jim is not bludgeoned to death in his bed (though the movie labors to highlight how much he would have deserved it). 

     Passengers hits an odd mark as entertainment goes, and my enjoyment in the movie may have been greatly due to having such low expectations based on the poor audience reception. Yet the theater audience was no doubt expecting a much higher level of action rather than drama. With that kind of expectation, Passengers is painfully slow and plodding. But as a drama, it works well enough. A masterpiece it is not, but it isn't trying to be. In some strange way, Passengers has a self-awareness about its ambitions and stays within them. It doesn't try too hard by pushing heavy-handed dialogue, overdoing the special effects, or trying to hide the convenient steps taken here and there. I don't know how much re-watch value Passengers would offer, but it is definitely interesting, enjoyable, and offered some interesting discussion afterwards about situational ethics.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hidden Figures

     In 1961, it wasn't just a man's world, but a white man's world according to Hidden Figures. In this world of inequality, three talented African-American women Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are the unsung heroes at NASA during the space race against the Russians. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are all in positions well below their skill levels, but "that's just the way it is." Even other black men make somewhat disparaging remarks about women doing the kinds of things these women do. Racism and sexism alike keep Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary minding their p's and q's. But as the space race intensifies, NASA's best minds will have to step forward, and some of those best minds may just be African American women.

      In the 1960’s, segregation is still very much a part of everyday life, with restrooms, libraries, and water fountains enforcing continued inequality and separation by Virginia state law. Back-handed comments here and there reveal barely-restrained prejudices still simmering beneath the surface, even if outright racism is restrained. Hidden Figures shows NASA as a place where there is an even mix of deliberate discrimination and indifferent obliviousness. While some employees are visibly annoyed by Katherine's presence in the Flight Research Division, others are simply oblivious to the challenges that social conventions have imposed -- such as her needing to use a restroom in another building because the restrooms are segregated.

      The cast of Hidden Figures earned a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This award was well-earned by every actor in Hidden Figures, especially from the leading ladies. The always delightful Octavia Spencer (Oscar winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Help) continues to shine, perfectly depicting subdued workplace professionalism one moment, and sterling strength the next. Newcomer Janelle Monae's electric charisma and shameless sass constantly lighten the moment while crafting a well-rounded character with conviction and purpose. Taraji P. Henson's Katherine initially seems relegated to frumpy working widow or dull genius, but Henson's portrayal of quiet determination, sweet romance, and tender motherhood make Katherine feel real and connectable, even if she is a genius.

     Of the supporting characters, one of the stand-outs is astronaut John Glenn, whose recent death makes the characterization here a timely homage. Glenn is shown as a fun and friendly gentleman with no illusions of self-importance, going out of his way to meet everyone, and kindly highlighting their importance to his mission. He almost seems too good to be true. But according to Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian, "Everybody thinks of John Glenn as this iconic war hero... and astronaut, but what's missed a lot is his humanity. Glenn was in a classic sense, a gentleman. He was always concerned about the people around him and it didn't matter what package they were in. He was a real people person" (Popular Mechanics, 2017).

      Amidst the excellent acting and inspiring story, Hidden Figures does have a few flaws. At times it seems that the writers were trying too hard to write quotable inspirational lines, but by doing so, it cheapens otherwise strong moments with forced or heavy-handed dialogue. For example, when Al Harrison hacks down the colored restroom sign, following it up with the line "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color" is hardly inspiring, and seems to be an exceptionally weak attempt at summarizing a message of equality. Beyond that, it undermines Al's intelligence as a character. Elsewhere, Mary Jackson walks into her engineering class where the instructor argues that the curriculum is not designed for teaching a woman, to which Mary earnestly replies "Well I imagine it's the same as teaching a man."

      In fairness, it is Hollywood's prerogative to embellish and dramatize, sometimes unrealistically, sometimes necessarily in order to make the story accessible to the broader audience. Bill Barry rightly remarked, "To be able to tell a story in a way that the audience can understand and make it entertaining enough for them to be able to watch, I think the scriptwriters have to be creative and find a balance between telling the exact historic details and delivering a story that is both interesting and gets the message across" (, 2016).

      One of the ways that Hidden Figures finds the balance between historical accuracy and telling an interesting story, is by using composite characters like Paul Stafford or Vivian Mitchell (played by Jim Parson and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) to represent attitudes of the world outside NASA. Vivian represents the unconscious prejudice of the time, while Paul personifies lingering racist and sexist attitudes. Interestingly, the real Katherine Johnson has said "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it" (History vs Hollywood, 2017). Yet somehow it would feel strange to show African American women in a 1961 Virginia not facing some form of thinly veiled prejudice, so it's understandable why the filmmakers made that choice.

      Hidden Figures is an inspiring story, made more so by the historical inspiration behind it. As a historical representation, it has a few missteps, but not so many that it becomes counter-historical. As entertainment, Hidden Figures absolutely soars, telling a moving story through its strong performances, and drawing attention to truly unsung heroes of space pioneering. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all real women with remarkable talents, each one contributing to the country's space efforts in their own ways. As an audience member, you feel the triumphs both great and small, from Katherine's sweet romance with Colonel Johnson, to Dorothy marching her group of "West Computers" down the hall to take over the running of the IBM. Ultimately, this classic story of overcoming adversity and being part of something greater than oneself is well worth watching.   

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


          In an earlier post that previewed this year's movies, I mentioned that I should see Prometheus since Alien: Covenant is due out later this year, and I often like Ridley Scott, and I generally like sci-fi. Last time Scott and sci-fi were together, we got The Martian, one of the best movies of that year, and possibly one of the best space-centric movies ever. 

     Prometheus could not be more opposite of The Martian in quality of writing, acting, or storytelling. It is exactly the sort of movie that rigidly structures all of its dialogue and actions around achieving specific ends rather than telling a story, playing out like a checklist to get to its labored ending, while sacrificing all the elements of quality on the altar of its own self-importance.

     Most movies that turn into suspense or horror have that painfully obvious moment where someone does something stupid to set in motion the events of the story. In Prometheus, that moment is every minute of the whole movie. Somehow someway, this big-budget prequel to the heralded Alien franchise manages to commit every single plot-driving bad decision conceivable. For that reason, this entire post is going to be an enjoyable hack job for me, providing that genuine satisfaction that can only come from a dose of mordant scathing.

     Oh but where to begin?

     To start, chew on this: paradoxically fantasy-driven scientists, who somehow convince an optimistic billionaire to fund a space mission based on the infallible evidence of ...cave drawings. They have faith that these cave drawings mean that they were invited by their creators (presumably the self-destructive albino in the opening) to come and seek them out. So, with overwhelming naiveté and stubborn resolve, they set out to find their creators, confident of being welcomed with open arms as to a long-lost grandparent. One of these scientists is the unlikely mix of dreamy, religious, and scientific. The other is so imbecile that upon finding exactly what he had hoped to, he promptly engages in a brooding smorgasbord about the complete failure that he is.

     Come to think of it, there's really no one to like in this crew. They're all either uncreative cut-outs of every stock character ever imagined, expendable idiots, or both. Even Charlize Theron is about as ineffectual as they come, being too cliché to even be a credible ice queen (which is saying something considering her history with that kind of role). She also has no real purpose other than to put a famous face in the film. The rest of the ragtag crew beg the audience to wonder how these people held employment anywhere, let alone as the leading minds of engineering, GPS mapping, or anything else. There's no one here to like, and no one here to genuinely hate; just a few you're not all that sorry to see go, and a few that seem like they deserved better. 

     Now credit where credit is due, there is exactly one interesting character in this installment, but that character is the android David, played with chilling but effective indifference by Michael Fassbender. But isn't it really pathetic that the only character who is remotely interesting isn't even human? And when I say interesting, I don't mean that he's likable-- simply that he's actually interesting. Between my incredulous scoffs at everyone else's actions, the only thing that really held my attention throughout Prometheus was wondering what David was up to. Sadly for me, his motives are never explained, and ultimately his actions are just as nonsensical as every other character. At times he seems to have a childlike wonder at exploring the questions of creation and existence, reverts to subservient machine, and inexplicably commits acts of unadulterated malice shortly after committing acts of heroism. Prometheus may be attempting to depict David coming into self-awareness, but instead the entire effort comes off as careless. 

     Back to these "scientists", what are they exactly? They seem to have a fairly broad knowledge of archaeology, geology, biology, physics, art, religion, culture, and just about everything else, yet somehow lack the general intuition to apply any of these things reasonably. They are simply dense by any standard, blithely wandering into alien structures, poking at everything, touching everything, sometimes pushing buttons, and worst of all: bringing organic alien matter aboard their ship to poke at even more. The two leading scientists who initiated this whole mission (the same two who based the mission on cave drawings) have no real grasp of archaeology, and go into a frenzied panic when the preserved items exposed to atmospheric change start to decay rapidly. When you remove something from a freezer, it starts to thaw; they don't understand this. 

     Every single decision shown onscreen is designed to enhance the plot, whether or not it's consistent with the character or the situation. Most of the dialogue seems painfully forced and often out of place, while characters constantly contradict what little development they’ve had. Example, two characters decide to abandon the survey team when they encounter a pile of extraterrestrial corpses that have clearly been decaying for quite some time. A few moments later however, one of these two expresses absolute infatuation with a live snake-like alien creature that behaves in a clearly aggressive way. Dr. Shaw's whole purpose is to meet the Engineers, humankind's creators, but even after acknowledging that they are not who she thought they were and witnessing the carnage caused by them, she obstinately decides to seek them out even further so she can ask them why they want to obliterate humans. There is a glaringly obvious flaw in this plan, but that’s where the movie ends.

     I could go on and on picking apart every last flaw of this movie, but since that would probably take about as long as the movie’s runtime, ergo a colossal waste of time, I can be satisfied with covering the basics. Suffice to say that this movie is a prime example of overdone heavy expositional dialogue, plot devices, gratuitous use of sci-fi tropes, and plot holes so large, they harpoon not only this movie, but others within the franchise. At the end of the day, Prometheus retells the same story we've already seen a number of times before: somewhere in space, an odd crew bring alien matter on board their ship, and pretty much everyone dies. Prometheus had great potential as an origin story, but wastes it all with constipated storytelling and laboring to lay the groundwork for Alien: Covenant, which will probably in turn tell that story again. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

     Since most of my childhood was passed in the 90's, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've seen Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast numerous times. I remember seeing it in the theater way back in 1991, and then watching it again and again on a trusty old VHS. With that history in mind, I went into the new live-action adaptation with fairly neutral expectations, but with every intention of giving the movie plenty of generosity to reinvent the story.

     This generosity was starting to deplete before the movie began, due to the forty-five minutes of inane previews that preceded the feature film. I understand that this is marketed to kids, and therefore they have to select the previews to appeal to that audience, but surely no one in their right minds thought that the VHS generation wouldn't be there too. Forty-five minutes teasing at all the films I definitely won't be seeing. Gru and his Fabio-like brother? No thanks. Smurfs meet the Amazonian Smurfs? Ugh, please. More Transformers, REALLY? Make it stop...make it stop...

FINALLY the movie began.

     The haunting theme plays as the familiar narration begins, and the groundwork is laid for the rest of the story. A few things immediately stick out: the first is that the prince really had it coming; it wasn't just one poor choice, but a lifestyle of selfishness and arrogance. The prince is a clear imitation of Louis XVI, being as pompous and lavish as possible, funded by the taxes of the provincial people. This depiction makes the harsh enchantment much more understandable, because it clearly shows that the prince made many choices that confirmed his selfishness-- the hag and the rose were just a final straw as it were.

     The second thing of note is that a few added lines of narration clear up a few questions left unanswered by the animated telling. Namely, how did no one in the province know that a grand castle was nestled in the forest, and not that far away from the village? Did no one in the castle have any association at all with people outside? How did no one know that it was there, and housing royalty? It turns out the curse erased the castle and all who worked or dwelt there from the memories of their loved ones. That makes perfect sense. Easily fixed. I still have a few questions but never mind those for the moment.

     From here the movie proceeds into the predictable musical sequence "Bonjour!", introducing Belle and the townspeople. For the most part, it's all very lively and colorful, showcasing the quirky townspeople and their simple lives, and certainly depicting the tininess of the settlement -- it's almost claustrophobic really. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everything about everyone, and they don't like change because their way of life is just fine as it is, thank you very much. The tension between Belle and the townspeople is much more prominent here than was shown in the animated version. Whereas the classic cartoon threw out passing lines about Belle not fitting in and not really having friends, this version displays a more mutually negative relationship. The townspeople don't like Belle's progressive thinking, and display paranoid animosity towards her attempts to utilize a homemade washing machine or teach a child to read. However, the townspeople are also shown snatching their laundry out of her way so she doesn't step on it as she obliviously hops through town singing about the "little people." While we can assume there's more history than is shown onscreen, it seems that Belle has given up trying to justify her ways to these simple-minded people.

     Speaking of Belle, a great deal of hype was driven by Emma Watson's participation in this movie, to the point that it seemed that the film's existence was contingent on Watson's involvement. And really she does a decent enough job as Belle, but I'm not convinced that Belle is all that much different from Hermoine, Emma Watson's character in the Harry Potter movies (specifically movies, not the books), which makes it hard to critique her actual performance objectively. In my preview of this year's movies, I referenced Beauty and the Beast as Hermoine! The Musical due to the fact that Emma Watson portrays a book-loving girl who lives in a castle surrounded by magic. I'm not retracting that, and would add to it that like her Harry Potter character, Watson's Belle seems to be better at most things than just about everyone she encounters.

     Watson herself proudly toted Belle as being a more feminist heroine. I suppose that Belle could be seen as an era-appropriate feminist, being a reader, an innovative inventor, and a tad fiery, but ultimately her great adventure is still marrying a prince. For it being a musical, Watson is okay; not great. I can't say this bothered me too much, because even the animated version didn't have soaring musical numbers for Belle to break loose on, so placing priority on the acting isn't the worst idea in the world for this particular role. However, what is either an error of directing or just lack of stage experience, Emma Watson is a little stiff as Belle. In her musical moments, she just seems bored and a bit dull. While the rest of the townsfolk are quirky and varying, Belle moves through them like a stone angel by comparison. It's true that not everyone can swoop around ala Julie Andrews, but a little movement and expression wouldn't hurt. Even in her most opportune moment on the hilltop where she sings of wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere, Watson runs to the top of the hill, and stands there.

     While Belle's songs may not be written to display range and personality, the more iconic piece "Be Our Guest" demands personality, expression, and charisma. While I'll allow for others to disagree with me, I didn't think this number was executed with the enchanting pizazz that the song's reputation carries. Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is a talented singer, but his imitation French accent is so canned and forced that it's hard to connect to the semi-human object as he has his moment of glory. And perhaps the artists of the CGI-characters were limited by adhering to semi-realism, which in turn limited the range of expression and body-language that the objects can demonstrate. Example: In the animated cartoon, Mrs. Potts, although clearly a teapot, has a little bit of squishy bounce to her movements in the manner of a pleasantly plump housekeeper. Here, Mrs. Potts is most certainly a ceramic teapot, depending strictly on her animated expressions for liveliness, which ends up feeling a little lacking for a bombastic musical number. Lumiere has the most free range of movement, but his faux Frenchness detracts from the expected buoyancy of the moment. Ultimately the colorful and abstract "Be Our Guest" sequence left me wondering what kind of mushrooms make up the grey stuff.

     To give proper credit, although some things fall flat, that is not to say that everyone involved is mediocre. Quite the contrary, with the exception of the above criticisms, most everyone here does a superb job. One of the most unexpected successes of this film is Luke Evans as Gaston. Luke Evans not only pulls off the part of the self-possessed villain with convincing conceit and well-timed comedy, his musical numbers are executed with perfection. As a character, Gaston is one of the most lively and flamboyant characters in the entire movie, human or otherwise. And interestingly, he probably has the most amount of original lines, whereas most of the rest of the script is lifted directly from the cartoon. Gaston doesn't get deep or sympathetic by any means, but he gets more screen time, which provides some needed breaks from the sometimes plodding castle scenes.

     Evans might be one of the biggest highlights, but he's not the only one. Elsewhere, Dan Stevens' performance under the CGI Beast is fairly impressive; the Beast has much more personality in this adaptation, even a sense of humor, which makes the romance aspect much more credible and somewhat more realistic (realistic being a bit of a loose term when talking about enchanted castles and curses). Evan's spotlight number "Evermore" is one of the more memorable vocal pieces, though possibly because of its originality. All in all the Beast has much more depth here, showing his journey from child to the conceited prince who brought the curse upon everyone. Kevin Kline as Maurice also works extremely well, being an absent-minded genius, but not entirely bumbling. Audra McDonald as the boisterous boudoir? Perfect. And any excuse to include Stanley Tucci is a good one. I also enjoyed the expansion of the enchantress's character in this portrayal.

     The box office numbers reflect only soaring success, so I don't expect many to agree with my assessment that this endeavor represented many lost opportunities. Beauty and the Beast does a truly marvelous job of bringing the cartoon to life with real actors, but therein lies part of my issue: unlike Cinderella or The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast borrows so heavily from its animated inspiration that at times it plays out like an imitation rather than adaptation, predictably checking boxes as it goes, bogging down the pacing of the story at times. The few scenes that are new to this telling are the most interesting, if only because they don't have a decades-old ghost to live up to. Beauty and the Beast is by no means a bad movie, it's actually quite good, but might have been so much better had they really aimed to reinvent, rather than walk a finely scripted line.