Friday, December 28, 2018

Bumblebee

Mild spoilers.

BUMBLEBEE. (As Optimus would say.) Set in the late 80's this is the origin story of the best Transformer character, and how the group of Transformers established their base on Earth. The main character is 18-year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) and the movie is essentially what you might imagine if someone attempted to combine Michael Bay with John Hughes.

Directed by Travis Knight. He brings genuine sweetness to this bizarre friendship. Better writing and this could've been a top film.

From moment one I was wowed by two things: First how unmistakably EIGHTIES it looks. The first shot is of a city on the Transformer home planet of Cybertron, and that's not something that's necessarily 80's, so how loudly it screamed 80's made me extremely happy as a fan of the era. The only thing that really fails the 80's tone is the characters, but I'll get to that. I was pleased as punch by the song choices and the fashion, and even the plot took some cues from fare of the era. Yes, they played Tears for Fears' most known song, but they played Tears for Fears. And The Smiths. And Take On Me by Aha. I was all for it.

The second thing to wow me was the design of the Transformers. They are much simpler and more clearly visible than the shiny mess they are in the Bay films. They're distinct, recognizable, and still fit in with the other movies. When they transform it gives you the impression that you can almost tell how the mechanics work, and when they fight each other you can tell who's who. The next best choice the movie made is to have the main conflict of the story be only between Bee and two Decepticons. No huge mishmash or trying vainly to figure out what "that one's" name is (though there's plenty cameos for the fans). I also appreciated how Bumblebee himself was the MacGuffin. He's the thing everyone's looking for, AND an actual character at the same time.

Haha I just saw that Dylan O'Brien voices Bee (for the brief time he has a voice) I KNEW he sounded familiar!

From there, things spiral down a bit. I get the appeal of the Bay films; nothing looks like them, and certainly not this, as nice as it looks. But while this flick finds satisfactory replacements for "the Bay" in the look by setting it in the 80's, it also seeks to be a coming-of-age teen flick in the style of John Hughes -- most obviously, specifically Sixteen Candles -- and in that, it seems oddly misguided and distracted by what it must perceive to be modern boxes to tick. The tirade that is to proceed may seem a bit like nit-picking, but it really does bring the movie down a notch or two with its sadly degrading persistence.

Charlie is quite a good character and her tom-boyishness makes her fit into the world of fighting-robots-that-can-turn-into-cars excellently. She's likable and easy to cheer for but has a nice, frustrated edge. Literally every character that surrounds her is a degradation. Her oblivious mom, her idiot of a step-father, a brat brother, and worst of all, a neighbor who has crush: Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) Today, a geek is the coolest thing you can be, but you'd never know it watching this pathetic excuse for a character. Beta-male, stumbling over himself, completely accepting of his position on the absolute bottom of the food chain. Think Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles but with no self-confidence and never tries.

She's so effortlessly The Best™.

It was as if they had a good side-kick character written, but because GIRLS can't lead movie or something, they had to destroy him, to be sure he never overshadows her. Dumb, because Hailee Steinfeld won't even let the likes of Jeff Bridges overshadow her. I honestly can't remember anything helpful this kid does. Several times they make it a joke how useless he is. It isn't funny, and he drags Hailee down with him. Weirdly, there's a "hot dude" that she interacts with a couple times (think Jake of Sixteen Candles) but I could never figure if we were supposed to like him or not. He hangs out with the Mean Girls, but seems a friendly guy when he talks to Charlie.

Instead of the story pursuing this guy as romantic interest on the side (as cliche as it might be, it matches the 80's theme perfectly) it stubbornly shoehorns in Memo at every opportunity, only to sideline him for a laugh. The actor seemed perfectly capable of playing a fun, cool geek in the same vein, but the script goes out of its way to emasculate him and turn him into a useless, irritating punchline. And while he's clearly interested in Charlie, she friendzones him brutally. I'm all for a good friendship, but they set up romance here; only to swat it away when payoff time came.

Looking at him you wouldn't think it, right? He looks cool. They should've cast a more waify actor, OR let this guy be normal! (Or cut him completely!)

Speaking of payoff, both Charlie and Bee have these moments where things built up in their characters come to fruition. Normal character arc stuff, you know? Bee's is a cute running joke that pays off into a surprisingly sweet moment; and Charlie's is an issue she struggles with the whole film, that lends her a lot of character depth and feels very unique in itself and I was compelled easily by it -- until the payoff moment, when it becomes completely irrelevant to the plot and feels weirdly anti-climactic. I still appreciate its inclusion, but it was disappointing that they couldn't find a better way to bring it back around.

Action was pretty good. The opening sequences were super engaging, but I did find myself zoning out during some of the later fights. Still they were staged sensibly and don't forget to bring emotional weight to the battle. Overall an excellent time at the theater, but I was surprised how hard the awful side characters hit the bottom line. They distracted me from the good, and there's a lot of good. Hailee Steinfeld has real chemistry with a CGI robot and it's genuinely sweet. The movie has a lot of fun with its 80's setting, and the plot holds together to the end, despite boring side scenes featuring villains and John Cena (who's actually the third best character to Charlie and Bee).

Because of them the movie shines.

I wish they'd given the side characters a bit more TLC and ultimate likability, or else just cut them altogether and focused more on Charlie and Bee's wonderful dynamic. When they're together the movie clicks, and in those moments, the Michael Bay and John Hughes amalgamation works unexpectedly well. Bumblebee, even at the disadvantage of occasional misguided writing, is still easily the best of the Transformer franchise. So far; the door is now open wide for better things to follow.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Aquaman

Spoiler-free!

Pro tip for the DCEU: don't try to copy Marvel. First, because you're bad at it so you'll fail, but also because it's an over-saturated market anyway and as the off-brand you'll never be anything but last place.

I'm so tired of Disney's Marvel movies that when I go to movies like Aquaman and something bad happens I think to myself, "Well, at least I'm not watching another Marvel movie." But Marvel movies are (mostly) still objectively better. (They have a secret ingredient, and unlike your grandma, it isn't love.) I want a new, better, game-changing method to be thought of, so superhero movies can be exciting again -- so, Dear DCEU, I have your best interest at heart.

Okay maybe MY interest is at heart, and your interest is right next to it.

Here's what you need to do, from the perspective of someone who wants to like superhero movies, but more often than not doesn't: Take risks. The last risky Marvel movie was Guardians of the Galaxy and that movie changed their game. The biggest risk y'all ever made was Wonder Woman, and she is, without a doubt, keeping your franchise afloat. Aquaman is a decent movie. It's got a fine cast who are having fun, a unique central setting, a basic plot with lots of locations to visit... but for a live-action movie that takes place 50% underwater, it's surprisingly un-risky. It's good enough. But in today's world, good enough is practically bad.

It has a lot of individual issues, each one speaking to a different origin of misguided intention. For one, it wants to be funny, but outright jokes rarely land and are mostly used to cover up lazy writing. Example: "You could've just peed on it." Yes. Or spit on it. That line draws our attention to the fact, but does little to endow the scene with any more sense. It would've been funnier to me if he had stopped her halfway through collecting his sweat with her superpowers and just spit a nice glob of foamy saliva on the thing. What is most genuinely funny in the movie is when it embraces its own bombastic clichés, so we laugh with them, not at them.

Self-awareness that circumvents the cliché > self-awareness that points out the use of a cliché.

Jason Momoa's presence is amusing in a completely natural way that works. Things like the hair flip, the way he plays off jokes, and his epic poses and awesome hero moments -- he's having a blast and it translates. For that reason, a comedy tone seems like a good idea, but the movie misses matching its tone to him still; it's comparatively dead. He even plays the drama well and comes across as sincere and comfortable, and kinda leaves the film behind in his wake. It gets bogged down in its effort to keep up with him by trying to structure that free-spirit vibe too much. Movies need structure, but this was an undisguised step-by-step adventure, and could barely establish itself in a location before he was ready to move on. It was holding him back.

When the focus was solely on him it always seemed to work. But I rather liked the supporting players so I'm not sure I'd wish for less of them. My favorite was his half-brother Orm, the primary villain played by Patrick Wilson. There was a early-era Loki vibe there, but not in a copycat way, that I enjoyed. Orm is very theatrical and I loved how often he'd yell and it would almost sound like he was singing. His motivations are also not convoluted, unlike the secondary villain (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is necessary, yet still distinctly feels like he detracts from the film. I also loved Nicole Kidman and the drama that she brought. Her strange romance with Arthur's father (Temuera Morrison) was a highlight of the movie.

I figured he'd be my favorite part of the movie, and I figured right. His hair was awesome and that's saying something because everyone's hair was a really big deal.

Mera (Amber Heard) I could take or leave. She stole too much of Arthur's thunder, but her presence was necessary, and the Shakespearean battling wits might've worked excellently with a smidge more chemistry and more biting writing. Willem Dafoe was perhaps underused, but better that than overused. The movie seemed afraid to put Arthur in scenes alone, but the best scene was the one where he was alone (well there was a giant monster there too, but it counts), and got to carry the scene without someone inadvertently stepping on his toes. I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but his interactions with Mera especially feel more like a passive-aggressive fights to upstage the other instead of an actual scene where the actors play off and elevate each other.

Visuals are a big part of the movie, and overall, I was impressed. Atlantis looked vast and vibrant and almost like a lived-in futuristic water city. Creature design was cool -- they went all out for that giant sea-monster thing. And there was some memorable and neat camera work. Especially in underwater fight scenes it takes on a less 2D perspective of the environment like scenes in outer space. (Should've taken that further!) The underwater effects were my biggest worry and turns out they were well-founded. The animated floating hair was so distracting, I couldn't pay attention to the actors' expressions. And the water distortion bothered me a bit too. I was always relieved when scenes took place on ground or in air pockets.

 Lol check out Willem photo-bombing in the back.

The action isn't anything particular except when paired with good visuals or a pleasantly hammy performance. That second one-on-one brother duel would've been quite good if only Orm had lost that dumb helmet at the start of it. Seems like the whole movie was that: pretty good ideas killed by lazy details and no follow-through. Still, my experience skewed toward enjoyment with the deviance from the Marvel formula -- though I'm sure the idea was to copy it. People have called it a rehash of Black Panther but that's in passing plot points only. Overall, taking tone, theme, and plot into account, it's more similar to Thor, and in a way that I liked.

I had a fine time watching, but it was more the lack of irritation and less the presence of good that was the cause. It's silly, cheesy, and pleasantly extravagant; but in such a risk-less and amateurishly calculated way that much of the magic gets dried up before it reaches us. So, in the end... and I'm sorry for this... it doesn't make any waves. I'll see myself out.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Mortal Engines

Very mild spoilers.

This one's a mixed bag. Based on the book series, Mortal Engines tells the story of a steampunk scifi world where survivors of an ancient nuclear war have turned their cities mobile and swallow up other cities for resources. Valentine (Hugo Weaving) runs things on the predator city London, and he has dark plans for long-term survival. In the way of said plans was Hester's (Hera Hilmar) mother, and now Hester is out for revenge. Tom (Robert Sheehan), a history buff, is caught between them, and he and Hester form a reluctant alliance against Valentine.

Non-scifi/adventure fans need not apply, I guess.

And that leads me straight into the film's first and main problem. Hester and Tom always know how Valentine is evil, but his plans are discovered and planned against only once the third act starts. Hester has vague notions of revenge, and Tom has vague notions of helping her, but they wander through the second act without anything particular to do. The resident badass, Anna Fang (Jihae), picks them up and proceeds to steal their heroic moments by being better than them at everything. They kind of putter along behind her, uselessly. It was frustrating, as I wanted to root for these two, but the movie made it nigh impossible by letting them do nothing I could root for them to accomplish. Adventure was laid out right in front of them, but they were never allowed to dive in.

I wanted this to be this year's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Debatable in quality, but enjoyable in a way that doesn't require quality. In Valerian, the two are extremely hands-on and that's what makes the adventure work. Hester and Tom are practically observers of adventure, not participators or instigators. Romantic tension between Tom and Hester falls flat too. They have very little chemistry to keep it fueled, and it's saved for far too long. Acting-wise the only cast member who's genuinely commendable is Hugo Weaving. He runs circles around everyone and doesn't break a sweat. That wouldn't matter, as adventure isn't a high-acting genre, but better performances would've been useful to bolster the meandering.

The epic music swell during his reveal was magnificent

What this movie gets right is its production and art design. Director Christian Rivers has a background in this kind of thing, and it shows. The places created are awesome, and I was disappointed every time they weren't sufficiently explored before they blew up or burnt down. Our heroes don't explore so much. They stride through places on their way in, and run through them on their way out. The world created here is too good for the characters and events that inhabit it. And even the cinematography lacks the ability to show it off properly. The script has practiced beats and structure, but I'd rather it be uneven and messy than this by-the-numbers.

Every new turn started in a direction so full of potential, and each time it seemed snatched away by having to follow rules. Screenplay 101, with no bells and whistles. At one point, there's a threat of their being auctioned off and turned into sausages, but two seconds later the threat is nullified and they're off to somewhere new. Most of the film is spent in narrowly avoiding those rabbit holes instead of exploring them, and where's the fun in that? Rescues and escapes are just conveniences, so the plot can continue, not cleverly implemented, and carried out by characters I cared zero about (sorry, Anna) instead of the heroes themselves. It's all competent, really, but only in the most base sense.

It was great at engaging my imagination, which at the same time made it all the more frustrating when it took it nowhere.

I hate that I have to mention this, but that Minion gag was -- to be as brutally honest as possible -- the worst thing I've ever seen happen it a movie. Ever. In my entire lifetime. It's not only that it's a dumb and already dated joke, but it snatched me out of the movie similarly to how being bashed upside the head with a bag of bricks might. Whoever thought of it and whoever approved it must've been on stupid pills, and anyone who didn't say anything against it are complicit. It doesn't ruin the movie. But it might as well have. I wanted to love this movie. Its structural bones are exactly my thing. The hero duo; the setting; the potential for high adventure. There are capable moments, and a wonderfully solid world to build on, but the completed structure is amateurish and rickety.

Because of my disappointment I'm focusing on the bad, but there is good here, I promise. It's book-ended in high-flying goodness, for example. The opening sequence really clicked, and it wowed me. And the climactic buildup finds its footing again. I loved the culture and world-building, like Tom getting excited over finding a vintage toaster. And I like the idea of Tom and Hester's dynamic. Her being wild, cold, and scary, and him being fascinated but totally out of his depth. He gets the hero arc. She's leading a revenge tale. It squeaks by, but the intention is strong. And I weirdly liked the stuff with Shrike (Mo-capped by Stephen Lang). One rabbit hole that was explored a little after all.

I don't mind her scar being toned down, but they still play it up inside the movie, which is silly.

Despite it all, if there's ever a sequel I will be there. I'll probably even watch this again someday, and maybe now that I've explained the ways it let me down, I'll be able to continue enjoying what it did right for me. I'm sure it'll always be a mixed bag, with some of it junk and some of it treasure. Treasure on par with vintage toasters anyway -- but hey, vintage toasters are valuable to some, and I guess count me in as one; metaphorically, anyway. You have to sift through a lot of junk to find them, but if you find them fascinating too, this may be a mixed bag worth diving into.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spoiler-free!

Ever since Tobey Maguire, we've seen plenty of silver screen iterations of Peter Parker. Time to give Miles Morales a place in the spotlight. He sure does make it shine.

In a movie that could easily be overstuffed and distracted, it all serves to help him along his way.

Plot, premise -- whatever. It's a tale as old as time, really, and you know it already. There's Miles. (Shameik Moore) He becomes Spider-Man. Through related circumstances, other Spider-Men/Women/Beings accidentally get pulled into and trapped in his universe. They need to get back. Spider-Man is the only one who can get them back. And Miles Morales is the one-and-only Spider-Man!

Somehow I didn't expect this to be an origin story. Not sure why, as in retrospect it's obvious. But while it is an origin story for Miles in the sense that when the movie begins he's not Spider-Man and when it ends he is, it does away with the dragging feeling of a typical origin tale by doing away with one thing. See, the main restriction of origins like Spidey is that they're lonely. The hero randomly obtains these incredible powers, and has no one to tell. No one to confide in. No one to give clear advice. So, he flounders by himself. It's natural, and it's not like it doesn't work as a story. It can be and has been compelling. Many, many, many times. Time for a fresh angle.

Like a super strange mentor situation maybe...

Enter Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn). It may sound complicated but no worries. The first is the classic Spidey, just older and a bit washed up. Then, naturally, Spider-Woman. The noir one exists in edgy black and white newsprint and wears a fedora, the next is a cartoon pig (self-explanatory if you ask me), and finally the anime version with a cute little girl and her pet spider. They're what drive Miles to truly becoming Spider-Man -- in that if he doesn't, they can't get home, and they're there to instruct and advise. There is still floundering, and loneliness to deal with too, but it all hits so much harder when it's sudden, and not par-for-the-course.

It only felt like an origin it the obligatory power-manifestation scene (which was unusually funny; it's usually just cringe to me) and then near the end for a moment. In between it could've any other day of the week, of missions and plots and action/adventuring. Miles spends a lot of time sans webslingers. A great choice because the lessened ability made for higher stakes. And he wears a Spider-Man Halloween costume. No, I'm not kidding. There were moments I wished he'd get a real suit already, but once he did, I understood why they delayed it so long. Well, besides thematically. The personality comes through so much better in the pieced-together, home-spun suit, it really does. And Miles is not a character you want to hide.

Plus, the long-awaited suit reveal moment was spectacular. (Or should I say "ultimate"?)

Anyway, the movie very respectfully but very firmly sidelines the side-Spider-Beings. If you're worried the movie might be crowded with them, don't be. They appear when they're useful and don't hog the scenery. If Spider-Ham isn't doing something worth looking at, you don't see him. Plain and simple. And there's a definite hierarchy of importance with these characters. Miles is number one. Always and forever, and the movie never forgets it. Peter is next, then Gwen. They have arcs. The rest get solid moments to shine. The temptation to overuse Spider-Ham had to be huge, but they never do. This is Miles' movie, and boy is it Miles' movie.

He's instantly established as the every-kid type, with his own passions (street art and music), his own issues that would seem big for a normal kid (being transferred to a boarding prep school) and complex relationships. He has no annoying-level problems with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), but there's enough tension between them to be important as the plot rolls on. And he admires his maybe-not-so-great-but-definitely-very-cool uncle (Mahershala Ali). He's also enough of a dork to consider the friend-zone a fine place to be, and I think that's just too cute. Fact is, you care about this kid from the get-go, and from there it's only up.

Gwen is so extra. She has ballet shoes, and they're teal, AND they're point shoes, AND she USES them!

The voice performance by Shameik Moore is infused with teenage innocence and pathos to remarkable levels. To the point where I was shocked at how relatively inexperienced an actor he is. I took him for a long-time professional voice actor. Jake Johnson also is remarkable. He hits the comedy and the genuine drama equally well. Zoë Kravitz is Mary Jane. Liev Schreiber plays Kingpin. Chris Pine is there for a hot second. I mean -- Nicholas Cage! As a hard-boiled Spider-detective! There's not a bad performance in the lot -- whether for pitch-perfect comic delivery, or heart-breaking drama, or both together -- and since I don't have space to individually praise everyone who left an impression, I'll have to leave it at that.

Animation style is the big thing that sets this film apart. Without it, it would feel fairly typical, and even cheesy if they kept the filming style. It was a risk -- the thing that had most potential to put off viewers. Its goal was to maintain a comic-book look. There are print dots and hashing in the bright, comic-y colors. The motion is sometimes visibly choppy, like the movie's running at a slow frame-rate. (Much like The Lego Movie, for comparison.) And there's sometimes panels and split-screens. Miles' thoughts even translate to thought boxes for one sequence. In my opinion, it not only works -- it's the thing that makes the movie. I'm a firm believer in a movie's style matching the style of it's main character, and they nailed it here.

Even without the stylistic flair the animation is wonderful. Those expressions and character designs!

I couldn't ask for more. Grand, colorful, peppy and powerful in turn, uproariously hilarious beyond expectation, with gleefully involving characters and a plot line that doesn't feel stretched thin in this comic-book-movie world. Yes, this movie may be one of many, but like it's new-to-the-team hero, it plays it like it's the one-and-only. I could have happily existed in that crisp, splashy, and moving little universe for another adventure, or two, or five. So, welcome to the team, one-and-only Spider-Man!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Jungle Book (2016) & Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Spoilers.

Or: The Jungle Book v Mowgli: Which is Worse? 

They were announced at around the same time, and trying to one-up each other with their casting at the same time, but Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book beat Andy Serkis' Mowgli to release by two years. Still, I've always thought of them as competing movies, and never saw The Jungle Book, so once Mowgli released, I figured it was time to give them both a shot and see which is the winner.

They're both losers. Thanks for reading.

Nah -- I sat through both of them, so I'm gonna review and compare them, and I have a few things to get off my chest so hang tight.

Like questions. For example: Why does this elephant have moss growing on it??? (From Mowgli.)

The Jungle Book = the Disney live action remake. Mowgli = Warner Bros. sold to Netflix.
Cast:
Mowgli: Neel Sethi -- Rohan Chand
Bagheera: Ben Kingsley -- Christian Bale
Baloo: Bill Murray -- Andy Serkis
Shere Khan: Idris Elba -- Benedict Cumberbatch
Kaa: Scarlett Johansson -- Cate Blanchett
King Louie: Christopher Walken -- N/A
Wolf Mother: Lupita Nyong'o -- Naomie Harris

Also in The Jungle Book: Giancarlo Esposito.
Also in Mowgli: Peter Mullan, Tom Hollander, Eddie Marsan, Jack Reynor, Matthew Rhys.

Some casts, am I right? It's an impressive list of names, and beside the two kids, there's not a one I'd hesitate to say is talented. They're all terrible. No okay, fine: the actors in themselves do as well as they could be expected to do. Some, like Murray, Serkis and Walken are woefully miscast, and others just do what they do. The real problem here is that the characters are bad because they have confused characters. And the characters are confused because the writing is confused, BUT -- award one point to Mowgli, because the writing there is much cleaner and more straightforward.

Even though we were already familiar with this one's plot. Sorta. (From The Jungle Book.)

The Jungle Book had the disadvantage of being a remake, saddled with a nostalgia checklist and new things to bring to the table. As a result, things like this happen: King Louie, a character invented by Disney for the animation, who was named after "The King of Swing" Louis Prima, now doesn't sing a jazzy song or dance, but is monstrous and meant to be scary -- but is counterintuitively played by Christopher Walken. Or, they needed Mowgli and Bagheera to be separated so Mowgli can meet Baloo, but it doesn't make sense that Bagheera would leave, so he gets knocked out in a fight with Shere Khan. Or, since Shere Khan's the bad guy he needs to be present from the beginning, so flesh out his threat to kill Mowgli. And he needs a backstory reason to kill Mowgli. And the wolves shouldn't give up Mowgli so easily. And there has to be mini adventures to pad the run time since there's no musical numbers, but no horsing around with military elephants. Elephants have to be taken seriously. Also, forget Mowgli going to the man village in the end. Who'd want that anyway?

(From The Jungle Book.) I mean... WHYY??

Mowgli, without the Disney template, does what it wants so the plot is just about Mowgli trying to be a wolf, but then having to leave because of Shere Khan's threat, living in the man village, and then saving the day from both Shere Khan, and the evil white hunter who's visiting the village to pretend to be nice while he breaks off elephant's tusks, and beheads wolf puppies. Wow, that degraded a little. But overall, it's considerably more streamlined and has a mildly clearer message, I guess. Neither hit the neat and simple plot and arc of the 67' animation though, of Mowgli searching for a home, wanting it to be the jungle, and finding out it's the village after all. Of course not.

(From Mowgli.) He has to complete a race to be an official member of the pack.

Let's talk about Baloo. Easily the best thing about the animation film, and no one really knows what to do with him now. The Jungle Book makes him a lazy bum who has to learn to care for Mowgli and at first only uses him to get honey for him. Most of the film he's careless and dismissive. And I've never seen Bill Murray be so droll and unfunny. I doubt it's his fault, but it was depressing to see. Serkis' version has Baloo work as a trainer for the wolves, so he's around for longer, but even more useless, and UGLY. Why they thought making Baloo ugly was a good idea I will never fathom. But Serkis does at least makes him expressive. I wonder if they used any motion capture for it. (Yes, I've discovered they did.)

(From Mowgli.) Just look at how weirdly ugly he is. This movie gave all its animals humanoid eyes, too.

The animation is an interesting subject, actually. The Jungle Book is two years old and the animation has already dated a bit, but it's still objectively better than Mowgli, I'd say. But what Mowgli lacks in budget and quality it makes up for in style. The creature characters have an extra kick of personality, like an amalgamation of caricatured cartoon and photo-realism. So animals are naturally more expressive, readable and recognizable, BUT, at the cost of them seeming out-of-place whenever humans other than Mowgli are in the same scenes. Mowgli spends a chunk of time alone in the man village, and it's like a completely separate movie -- and jarring when animals show up again. Still I prefer that to the characterless designs that happened in The Jungle Book.

They totally failed Baloo by making him walk on all fours. (From The Jungle Book.)

What else? Well, all my favorite things about the old animation were missing from the live action. Too silly for them probably, but that little movie lived of its snappy jazz tunes and 60's pop culture. I figured if they were gonna remake it they'd have some particular reason, but it really was just the original -- stripped of everything that made it original, fun, and meaningful. Bagheera was always my favorite and I missed him being that lovable grump. Neither film commits anything atrocious against him though, so that's good, I guess. In the remake I liked how Mowgli would drone on and on about nothing like kids do, and the final action sequence was a creative change. And I liked in Serkis' version how he put a little bit of unique style in there. Favreau's capable of style, but I doubt he was allowed.

If the original 67' animation wasn't a factor, the choice of which is better would be much harder -- but it is, and I can't not consider it. I watched it again after these two to cleanse my palate, and was instantly swept up in its nostalgia, enjoying its quirks, and noticing a few new things that went over my head last time (it's been a while). So I wonder, why do a remake at all? The nostalgia was much stronger rewatching the original, the hand-drawn cartoons will hold up much longer than computer animation, which becomes obsolete as improvements in the art are made, and all the memorable details are in the original, because the remake is afraid to push any boundary, yet is required to adhere to a more serious and realistic tone.

(From The Jungle Book.) "Keep two of the songs, but... sing them badly? I guess??" "Okay sure." -- Pitch meeting.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle wins automatically from that perspective. Quality-wise it's an arguable fight, but Mowgli has a different plot and new characters; and the familiar characters are utilized differently. It may not be good, but it earns its existence by being something unique. The Jungle Book (2016) is neither unique nor the best version of its story. It definitely had a bigger budget to work with, but for me, that's worthless without a soul, and that it lost along the way. Mowgli bored me after a while, but did seem to possess a soul, however weak a one.

So, The Jungle Book is worse. But the best isn't Mowgli -- the original, 1967 The Jungle Book is the best. I don't care that it wasn't supposed to be in the competition. As the only version of this story I've seen that I'd even consider recommending, it's the clear winner. And though I struggled to get through these two other films, I'm glad I did, since it inspired me to revisit this charming little classic that can still hold its own.

This is where it's at.

The Jungle Book (2016) -- 2 stars.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle -- 2 stars.
The Jungle Book (1967) -- 4 stars.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Little Mermaid (2018)

Mild Spoilers.

If you're at all familiar with my taste in movies, you'll know that I'm a fan of what I call cringe movies. Overly cheesy and/or badly made flicks that I enjoy because of their badness. They're good for a laugh, and often they border of guilty pleasures. WELL. This re-imagining of Han Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is a precious, precious cringe gem. Let me tell you about it:

I love it.

Right off the bat it sets up by telling the basic Little Mermaid story -- of a mermaid who sells her soul to have legs -- via something that looks like colored pencil drawings brought to life. Also, in the style of The Princess Bride, since a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine!) is telling her two adorable granddaughters the story. In this version the mermaid fails to get her prince and is stuck working for the magician (Armando Gutierrez, also a producer of the project) who owns her soul. He happens to be the leader of a circus troupe in 1930's (or so) Mississippi, so she's one of his more impressive acts.

Meanwhile there's a little girl named Elle (Loreto Peralta) whose parents recently died and who has asthma that worries her uncle Cam (William Moseley). He's a writer and is assigned to investigate this rumored healing water being pedaled at... you guessed it -- a circus. Off they go, and meet the mermaid, named Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton). He's cynical, Elle is a believer, there's more sinister things going on... etc., etc., and it goes more or less how you think -- but more importantly, how you want it to.

This story was bred to embrace the cliches.

Movies that surprise you are overrated. Sometimes, the natural route is the best way, and they hit all the checkpoints here. Cam and Elizabeth slowly fall in love; the bad guy wants to kidnap Elle because she's special; they make friends with the circus' fortune teller (Gina Gershon) and dog-boy (Chris Yong) and have to steal Elizabeth's soul back; and William Moseley always, always, ALWAYS wears suspenders and his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows. (It's the little things.) Everyone explains the plot as it goes along, and themes are inconsistent from moment to moment and wonderfully cliched, like magic, and believing in fairytales, and true love. All that good stuff.

Before I build it up too much I should say unequivocally, that it is put together horrendously. When I say it's bad, it is a special brand of astonishingly bad. I don't even know where to begin to explain to you how bad this production is. There are some obvious green screen shots where you can see the green back-lighting the actors, and some downright painful lighting choices elsewhere. But CGI usage is reserved and decent enough. The cinematography works in that it conveys a pretty fairytale feel, although framing often cuts off characters when it isn't supposed to, and placement is weak and totally uncreative.

Music starts and ends in awkward places... in this scene they slow dance and Cam trips so badly he almost knocks her down...

The best bad things it does though, are not on the visual side. The script is so awkward, punching out plot line by line, and sometimes taking leaps that I couldn't even follow. Some was over-explained, some completely nonsensical, and all of it was awkward. So, so awkward there were times I thought I might die of the awkwardness. The acting didn't help it -- or perhaps it didn't help the acting. And I think the editing had a hand in it too. All the interactions, the line delivery, are so awkward and strange that they transcend this plane and reach a new, otherworldly one that defies my capacity for understanding.

Like, I wouldn't say Moseley is a particularly good actor, but I wouldn't say he's bad either. And it's so strange because he does have that same presence here as he does in The Chronicles of Narnia, where he fits in the world and holds attention. Sorta the same for Drayton -- The Shannara Chronicles (they both hail from "chronicles") is a super cheesy show, but she's typically capable of delivering a line. But everyone was awful in the most incomprehensible and oddly charming way. The villain attempts to chew scenery. Attempts. There's odd moment of overacting in doing trivial things that most films wouldn't bother to show. It's like the whole film was made up of the awkward spaces between when the actor is finished acting and the director says "cut." Like... they're technically acting... but not really.

OR, it was like they made the movie using all the good, normal takes, and then all that footage got deleted, and all that was left was the bad takes, so they made the movie again out of those. 

When Elizabeth is in the circus act, she's displayed in a fish tank, and in almost every shot, you can see her actively trying to stay underwater -- as she has a lung-full of air that's making her float. It's the kind of thing you'd never think of, except when it's done wrong. Also, her mermaid getup is a sleeve over her legs, and you can always tell where her knees are. And maybe it was done to inch out the hour-and-twenty-four-minute runtime, but the camera is always lingering past its welcome, watching people do mundane things and slowing down the scenes' pace. Oh, and the dubbing! Most of the scenes are re-dubbed so badly that it was downright distracting. That didn't help the uncanny acting either.

At one point in the movie, Elizabeth is in her room looking at herself in the mirror, and just starts singing a song, and she sings it the whole way through and Cam hears from outside and starts spying on her, and when she's finished he tries to sneak away but knocks over a broomstick and she jumps up and goes "who's there?!" and he's just standing there trying to put the broom back in its place but the prop isn't staying and he's trying to power through but it's just so obvious that it wasn't scripted to take so long -- yet they leave the whole thing in, and if I'm totally and completely honest with you... I just love it so much.

You, an intellectual: "The expressions in this photo accurately portray my duel emotions while watching the film.
Me, confused by how much I like this movie: "IT ME."

I don't know what else to say. I guess you'll either understand or you won't, and if you do you should watch this movie. I mean, I can only imagine watching this as a little kid, but I like to think I would've adored it, not being able to judge it as I can now. It honestly does things that I sometimes secretly wish movies would do. The script is a first draft: a shambling mess, riddled with storytelling no-no's and unfinished thoughts, but is so shamelessly in love with its own story. It's awful, but I admire it. And the camera, looking where it shouldn't: it's because it's inept and doesn't know what editing is, but its mistakes shows us the story in a unique way.

If you think I'm stretching to find positives here, I'm really not. It's bad. It shouldn't be this way. It's objectively bad; objectively a less effective way of conveying the story than the tried and true way of basic competence. But basic competence would've been downright boring with this story. It would've made it average. I don't think this story could have achieve exceptionalism without being altered to be unrecognizable. So that it made itself exceptionally bad instead, is, to me... well... ideal.

You honestly can't get this kind of thing anywhere else.

And I just think it's so cute that no matter how old I get, Will Moseley will always be the perfect amount of older than me and attractive. I wondered what would happen once I was too old to crush on Peter Pevensie, but 13 years later it's like nothing has changed. I guess that's why I loved it. No, not because Moseley is handsome and charming and wears his sleeves rolled up (not totally) -- but because it made me feel like nothing has changed since I was a kid who didn't know what the rules of filmmaking were, and couldn't tell when they were being broken, but just loved adventure, and romance, and fairytales; unreservedly and without discretion.

I don't know whether to recommend this as a good film or bad, but I do know I recommend it. I found myself outright laughing at some of the terrible choices and ineptitude here, but also falling for its shameless adoration with what it's trying so nobly to present. It failed, yet, it succeeded. I'm baffled, mystified, amused, a little frustrated, and a little in love.

You can draw your own conclusions: it's currently streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Upcoming Movie Roundup - December

Unexpectedly, I only saw two new movies in November --  Overlord (review) was brisk, splashy, weird and violent, and Buster Scruggs (review) was darkly hilarious, hauntingly memorable, and also kinda violent. Both excellent films. I also saw The Night Eats the World (review) which came out back in July, and it was also excellent; fascinating, and thought-provoking.

Otherwise, November was a bit disappointing on the blockbuster front. I thought for sure I'd see Robin Hood, but after it got universally slammed we figured it'd be more fun to wait until we can stream it and make fun of it without bothering people. And it was almost the same deal with Fantastic Beasts 2Ralph Breaks the Internet still looks good, and Green Book. I'm actually feeling a need for a solid, big, blockbuster. So good thing December potentially has four of them, right?

But, it's also Oscar season. I'm not very big on Oscar season. Sometimes awards can urge me to watch movies I had no interest in before, but mostly it just annoys me because of how many movies seem to only exist to try to bait awards. Like there's suddenly this bothersome disconnect between art in film and entertainment in film; there are films made to be seen and loved by people, and films made to be rewarded by faceless arbiters, and they only intersect occasionally. And only, it seems, at this time of year.

I don't want to rain on people's parade, I'm just saying this as a kind of disclaimer, because I find that most of the year I'm more interested arty than I am now, because they reek of Oscar-bait, whether they're meant to or not. It automatically lessens my interest, and I'm aware of how biased that is, so I'm putting it out there, so that when I talk cynically about a movie that may not deserve it, you'll know where I'm coming from and can judge for yourself.

Disclaimer/rant/TED talk over. Let's get to the trailers!


Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Dec 7th(Netflix); PG-13
Well this one's definitely not gonna be getting awards. Andy Serkis' directorial debut is a new version of The Jungle Book, that, as far as I can tell, doesn't go back to the book for source but still is trying to compete with Jon Favreau's remake, even though it came out two years ago. Serkis does have a good cast -- himself, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hollander, Naomi Harris, (and more!) and it focuses a bit more on the humans, which is a good idea imo, since it's a live-action movie. Who knows how it's executed. Kinda seems like the plot ventures into a tired "animals vs man" direction. I still haven't seen Favreau's, so maybe I'll get to both of them this month and see who wins the competition!




Mary Queen of Scotts
Dec 7th(limited); R
This one's ideal bait for the Oscars and has been building hype all year. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, with support from the likes of Guy Pearce, David Tennant and Jack Lowden. It's a period drama so there's costumes and locations a great need for excellent cinematography, and history so the roles are a meaty challenge. It can even sneak a little modern politics in there! I'd like to see it someday because I'm a fan of the cast, but it's not urgent.




Vox Lux
Dec 7th(limited) R
Looks like Natalie Portman is out for another Oscar. She has one, right? *research* Yes. I'd be crazy to deny that she has skill, and she clearly puts a ton of effort into her roles, but I've always been neutral toward her at best. For complicated reasons but I think the short version is she tries too hard. Everything she does feels forced to me. Anyway that's all to say that this movie looks fine. Actually I wouldn't mind watching it at all, but mostly out of curiosity because I have no idea what the plot is, and the visual look is kinda fascinating.




Ben is Back
Dec 7th(limited) R
Seems like a very solid drama, but watching the trailer was just making me feel dread about the plot. I bet Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts put in some fine performances, and I bet if I watched it I'd enjoy or at least appreciate it, but, I think (cynically I know) it'll probably just fall through the cracks.




Dumplin'
Dec 7th(Netflix); PG-13
Kay, see, this looks super silly, but because it's going to be on Netflix I'll probably watch it instantly and have a fun time. That's it. That's all I have to say. (Has Netflix become the new and improved Disney Channel??)




Once Upon a Deadpool
Dec 12th; PG-13!
I was fine with the content level of the original version of Deadpool 2, but since this re-edit has added scenes and Fred Savage it might be worth checking out. I guess that's exactly the point, isn't it? Make it PG-13 so kids can see it; make new scenes so everyone else will see it again! But I can't imagine it being better than the original version. Unless the new scenes are downright spectacular to make me not miss what they cut out. For me, rated R for violence in Deadpool is pretty necessary, (I guess we'll find out how necessary!) and the language occasionally helped with the humor. Occasionally.




Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse
Dec 14th; PG
I can't even watch this trailer without grinning. When I first heard about this movie I dismissed it, thinking because it's animated it was for extreme fans, or part of a series or something. Of course, the second I finally saw the trailer my head exploded, and it became one of my most anticipated movies of the year! I can only imagine it knocking my socks off and I can't wait for it to happen -- it looks so beautiful, with the colors the animation style, and there's a real plot, and personal stakes, but it's not all revealed in the trailer so there's intrigue. If it's somehow not good, it's going to break my heart because I've completely forgotten how to be cautious and I have sky-high expectations. Can't wait to see it!




Mortal Engines
Dec 14th; PG-13
Peter Jackson takes on steampunk fantasy, and I wish he'd forgotten about The Hobbit and got to this sooner! It doesn't have me fully confident in its quality, but I am totally confident in that I'll enjoy it no matter what, because this is exactly my deal. I hope it'll reach the heights I imagine it's capable of, but I can't imagine not a having a blast in the theater even with flaws. I'm already a fan of Robert Sheehan and I really like the look of the lead girl Hera Hilmar, and then we have Hugo Weaving as the villain. It looks beautiful and spectacularly designed; it looks like a high-flying classic adventure plot; I can't wait to see it, even if it's made solely for me!




The Mule
Dec 14th(limited); R
Because it's a Clint Eastwood movie should I just trust that it's good and ignore that it seems like there's no way the story ends happily? I mean, it can end not happy and still be good. I don't know how, but I guess Clint Eastwood does. Somehow the idea of Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena being cop partners is very appealing to me though.




Mary Poppins Returns
Dec 19th; PG
Since the original wasn't animated, this Disney classic gets the soft-reboot-in-the-form-of-a-sequel treatment instead. I want to be okay with this movie. I want to enjoy Emily Blunt (she is charm itself) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the new songs, and the homage it pays to the original. But the cynic in me doubts that it's homage at all, but perhaps just banking (ha!) off the original. I hope it's not just a rehash and finds justification for it's existence, but unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is to watch it. And I only want to watch it if it is worthy on it's own merit. If Michael has the exact same arc as Mr. Banks in the original (which seems very likely) I may have to get annoyed, no matter how magical Emily Blunt is.




Bird Box
Dec 21st(Netflix); NR
So I'm definitely not the first person to say this, but hear me out: A Quiet Place, but with sight. It's a Netflix release and it's got Sandra Bullock instead of Emily Blunt so I seriously doubt it'll be as good (I do like Bullock sometimes I promise), but hopefully it's not actually as similar as it seems. It's Netflix so chances of my giving it a chance are pretty high, but there's not much interest there at all. I dunno, it's just not intriguing me. Except: why is it called Bird Box?




Aquaman
Dec 21st; PG-13
Who even cares at this point? Either it'll be the worst thing the DCEU puts out, or the best, or somewhere in between. I'm going to see it anyway, so I'll let you know. I've recently become a bit of a fan of Patrick Wilson (the Conjuring movies can take credit, so that's bonus points for James Wan too) so I'm kind of looking forward to him being the bad guy (at least it's not an animated bad guy haha right??) and I think it's funny how much like The Little Mermaid everything seems. Honestly, I seriously doubt it'll be the worst DCEU offering, but I do kinda expect to be disappointed. Also, underwater scenes in movies make me extremely uncomfortable. So. I expect to be uncomfortable.




Bumblebee
Dec 21st; PG-13
Well it's set in the late 80's, so how bad could it actually be? They finally scaled back on a Transformer movie, getting the main focus down to two, and they put some style into the trailer, so hopefully that translates to the movie... and already this has a high chance of being my favorite Transformers film. Still, that's not saying much. I feel like this is one I'll wait for steaming on, unless there's a huge positive response or something. Hailee Steinfeld is good... Bumblebee is the best transformer character... it could very easily be a very decent movie.




Holmes and Watson
Dec 25th; PG-13
Like... it looks real bad. But at the same time, it makes fun of the other modern takes on Sherlock Holmes and I just respect it so much for that. It's probably gonna be terrible. I will continue telling myself this in an effort to keep from getting excited about it. Yeah. It's probably going to be terrible. It just... they do all the obvious jokes! And there's Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and Ralph Fiennes is Moriarty! And they say modern things but it's set in the proper time! It's so weird! Ugh. I dunno. It's probably going to be terrible. But here's the thing: if it's good it'll be because it just doesn't care, and that's kinda rare these days.




Destroyer
Dec 25th(limited); R
How come Toby Kebbell has second billing but doesn't even appear in the trailer while Sebastian Stan is everywhere but so far down the cast list that I discovered he was in the movie by recognizing him? Anyway, I watch all movies I can find that have Toby Kebbell in them, and I watch all movie I can find that have Sebastian Stand in them. So I guess this will be a case of two birds with one stone. If the movie's good that'll make three! And I don't know, but it looks like it could be good maybe. Not naturally my cup of tea, but it could be. Nicole Kidman stars and is kinda unrecognizable.