Avengers: Infinity War(4/28/2018)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

Shortly after I went to a Saturday afternoon screening of Avengers: Infinity War I went onto Twitter and tweeted the following: “#AvengersInfinityWar All I’m going to say is, if you’re invested in the MCU you’re going to want to see this and do so before the spoilers get to you” and I’d say that’s still more or less what I have to say about the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.  Truth be told I’ve found writing reviews for MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as if anyone is looking for advice as to whether or not they should see them is pretty delusional.  That isn’t to say that these movies are “critic-proof” as I do think truly negative reviews of them could take their toll if the movies suddenly took a real dip in quality, but while they continue to live up to expectations the people who are interested are simply going to keep going and this notion that anyone is waiting for little old me to weigh in before they put down their money would be even more egotistical than it would be for most of my reviews.  So, after this paragraph (and the perfunctory summery after it) this review is going to just dive in and talk about everything that happens in this movie and what it means to this whole enterprise and things will probably be a little more informal than usual.

The film picks up right where Thor: Ragnarok left off with the Asgardian refugees spaceship running into Thanos’ giant space base.  The Asgardian ship is quickly boarded and Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appears to have gotten a hold of the Power Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy, makes quick work of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleson), and even The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Thanos then takes the Tesseract, which had been at the center of The Avengers and was re-stolen by Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, and proceeds to kill Loki on the spot and take the space stone from the Tesseract.  Heimdall (Idris Elba) is also killed but as he’s dying he manages to use the bifrost to teleport Bruce Banner back to Earth.  The Asgardian ship is destroyed but Thor, being a god, survives in the vacuum of space and is rescued by The Guardians of the Galaxy, who are chasing down the distress signal that the Asgardian ship was sending out.  From there He, Groot (Vin Diesal), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decide to seek out a weapons forge while Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) go to The Collector (Benicio del Toro) to try to find the Reality Stone from Thor: The Dark World.  Meanwhile, Banner finds himself having been teleported back to earth, where the Mind Stone is in the hands of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Time Stone is in the hands of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after the events of his film.  Banner immediately seeks out Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and shortly after warning him and Dr. Strange about Thanos finds New York under attack by Thanos’ minions.

That above summery is a good example of why this is a hard write a normal review of this movie.  It’s a paragraph that will make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t already seen eighteen movies that preceded this one, and if anyone has already seen eighteen Marvel movies why the hell would they skip this one?  There are other Marvel movies that you can go to and more or less enjoy without worrying about how they fit into the overall story, but this certainly isn’t one of them.  This also isn’t a Marvel movie that’s trying to be some kind of Marvel infused take on some other genre.  It isn’t trying to be a blockbuster take on the high school movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, it isn’t trying to be a comedic space opera that so happens to fit into the universe like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was, and it isn’t trying to be a politically charged science fiction film like Black Panther.  This is, at its heart, purely and simply a Marvel movie.  Of course it does need to bring in disparate elements from all those other movies and at times while watching the movie I was almost reminded of the early episodes of Marvel’s Netflix crossover series “The Defenders,” which gave the audience the impression that they were flipping between four different TV series.  Certain sacrifices are of course going to be made.  For instance The Guardians of the Galaxy are generally not accompanied by the 70s music they’re associated with and the trippy visuals associated with Dr. Strange are a lot more restrained here but for the most part the Russo Brothers do a pretty good job of bringing all these characters together efficiently while still providing all the action and witty banter that people expect from these movies.

All in all the movie plays out exactly as most audiences are expecting it to play out in grand entertaining fashion… and then everybody dies.  Now this is an ending that’s going to play out very differently to different audiences.  Personally I kind of saw it coming.  I had vague memories of hearing that something like that happening in the comic books and leading up to my screening I saw a lot of headlines in the early reviews talking about the “shocking ending” in ways that probably seemed vague to the people writing them but which were pretty easy for someone who pays to much attention to this stuff to put two and two together.  It’s also going to be less shocking to the over-informed simply because it’s a lot easier to be cynical about how permanent any of these deaths are likely to be if you know too much about who has what contracts.  We already know that there’s going to be a third Guardians of the Galaxy so there’s no way those characters are really dead and that Sony is trying to build a Spider-Man cinematic universe which ensures that that character is coming back and that there’s no way in hell that Disney is going to let the Black Panther money train movie end here.  However, it is maybe worth taking a couple steps back and considering how that played to the vast majority of the millions of people who are going to see this thing.  While I’m sure a lot of them will also have a hunch that some of these characters are coming back they probably didn’t see this cliffhanger coming and Marvel has done a pretty good job of downplaying the fact that another Avengers movie is coming next year with the general public.  In particular I wonder how the children in the audience would react to seeing the bad guy win and kill a bunch of their heroes.  Is that going to be traumatic to them?  I certainly hope so.

Anyway, the other thing about the movie I want to talk about has less to do with the ending itself so much as what led up to it.  Thanos was really only able to enact his insane plan because a lot of the heroes make a lot of selfish decisions.  Thanos only learns the location of the Soul Stone because Quill fails to follow Gamora’s instructions to shoot her rather than let her be captured and interrogated by Thanos, Gamora makes the same mistake herself by giving Thanos the location rather than see her sister tortured, Dr. Strange ostensibly only gives up the time stone to save Iron Man, Quill screws up yet again by losing his cool when the other heroes are about to take the gauntlet, and of course the possibility of that unhappy ending easily could have been cut of right from the beginning if Scarlett Witch had just yanked the mind stone from Vision’s head and wrecked it.  Absolutely none of these decisions can be justified on any logical level.  The whole damn movie is like a precession of so-called heroes making wildly selfish choices where they put the lives of their friends and family above the lives of literally trillions of other people and in doing so.  It’s like the anti-Casablanca, no one seems to realize that the lives of a couple little people does not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy universe where a madman wants to wipe out half of the universe’s population with the snap of the fingers… and yet thematically this series of events is not an accident.  The emotional and arguably selfish actions of all these characters stands in stark contrast to Thanos’ philosophy, which takes the notion of “the ends justify the means” to a deranged extreme.  Thanos is willing to kill trillions “for the greater good” and the heroes often can’t even kill one person “for the greater good,” presumably there’s a middle ground somewhere to be found and we’ll have to see if they address this in the as of yet untitled next Avengers movie.

So I guess the last question is why this movie works so well despite theoretically having all the same problems that Avengers: Age of Ultron had.  I called that movie an over-stuffed mess and on paper this movie is even more “stuffed” than that movie was, but it still manages to flow a lot better.  It also manages to find a lot more time to develop its villain than that earlier movie did.  In fact I was kind of shocked at how much effort they put into giving Thanos, a character I expected to have something of a Dr. Evil quality, some real motivations and personality.  Above all I think what makes this work so much better than Avengers: Age of Ultron is just that it has a purpose.  The surrounding solo Marvel films simply hadn’t been building towards Age of Ultron, it was a movie that largely just existed because they needed an Avengers movie in “phase two,” the movie those solo movies had been building towards pretty much since the beginning had been Infinity War and the fact that they actually managed to deliver on that promise and deliver on it this well is quite the achievement.  Now granted, a lot of this movie’s overall legacy is going to depend on whether they stick the landing in the follow-up and that remains to be seen, but if the goal for now was to make us excited for the finale then mission accomplished.

**** out of Five

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Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 4 – Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Of all the films I plan to look at for this series Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is probably the most famous and the most critically acclaimed.  I didn’t really go into this movie expecting it to be a movie that had been propped up by blind nostalgia but it was a popular movie from the era aimed at that general audience that I hadn’t seen and this seemed like the chance to do it.  This was a movie that always kind of fell into that weird spot where it wasn’t really childish enough to keep my attention when I was a kid but which looked too much like a kids movie for me to want to see it when I was older and shunning such things.  I don’t think I’m the only person who was a bit confused about who exactly this movie was for.  It was produced by the Disney corporation shortly before their famous “renaissance” of animated features but one look at Jessica Rabbit was enough to convince Jeffrey Katzenberg that this wasn’t exactly going to fit within their tradition of wholesome entertainment and the movie was eventually distributed by their Touchstone branch.  Despite that shift this still clearly wasn’t trying to masquerade as a full-on movie for adults.  It was rated PG (and yes, PG-13 was an option by 1988) and was certainly marketed to kids despite being filled with inside jokes about classic Hollywood.

It is perhaps fitting that I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in the month of Ready Player One as both movie employ these seemingly impossible crossovers between movie properties.  In this movie we get Daffy Duck and Donald Duck performing as dueling pianists and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny working together to save Bob Hoskins as well as a whole bunch of other more obscure animated cameos as well.  I knew there was something of an element of that was going to be present here but not the extent of it and it’s one of the movie’s more successful elements.  The other completely successful element is the special effects work, which won Academy Awards in 1988 and remain interesting today.  There’s a semi-famous story that Stanley Kubrick once described going to see the movie and spending the whole movie trying to figure out what trick was being used to have the animated characters interact so extensively with the live action ones and vice-versa until he realized there was no trick, it was just a whole lot of filmmakers working their asses off to make sure every shot is ready to be animated over.  Their work is not perfect and there are definitely places where you can see the seams but that’s probably a worthwhile sacrifice given that the animation here appears to have been hand drawn.  Future animation/live-action hybrids would be done through digital techniques that feel a lot less organic and interesting. Another downside is that the live action cinematography here feels a bit bland, especially given that it’s a neo-noir which should be a lot more shadowy.

Before watching this it had been revealed to me that Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom was the person who framed Roger Rabbit, which I thought was a spoiler at the time, but seeing the actual movie it’s pretty plainly obvious he’s the bad guy from the second he shows up.  I think the implication is supposed to be that this guy is an actual judge, in which case I have some serious questions about the judicial system in this world as it looks like he’s been authorized to summarily execute any “toon” without any kind of due process.  Yeah, I get that to some extent the treatment of “toons” here is supposed to be an allegory for racism but that’s some Nazi levels of discrimination right there and it doesn’t quite jive with the fact that most of these toons seem to be beloved entertainers that almost everyone in the city aside from Doom and Eddie Valiant seem to be cool with.  The movie is also a bit inconsistent about just how invincible these toons are.  If anything else about the movie doesn’t really work it’s simply that Roger Rabbit himself is just a really annoying character and it wasn’t that easy to root for him.  Frankly if I was Valiant I would have thrown him right into “the dip” after a couple hours of dealing with his shenanigans.  What’s more the movie pretty much forces you to picture what it looks like when Roger Rabbit and Jessica Rabbit are fucking and that is not really a healthy image to have in your head.  Kidding aside, this is a pretty cool movie overall, certainly something pretty different from anything else of the era that I can really think of.

To the Scorecard:

The 80s needed to step it up in this round and it did.  I don’t necessarily see this as quite the classic that some do, but it’s definitely a good movie and it’s earned its reputation for a reason.  This clearly isn’t just a product of blind nostalgia, not that I exactly expected it to be given that it’s a Robert Zemeckis film with a sizable budget and a lot of other things going for it.  Gen X nostalgia takes this one easily.

A Quiet Place(4/19/2018)


You never really know that a movie is worth seeing until the reviews start streaming in but that’s especially true with mainstream horror movies.  With prestige dramas you can at least anticipate things based on who’s directing and with tentpole action movies you at least get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting from the trailers and with comedies you sort of know what to expect based on who’s in the cast, but with horror movies things get pretty fuzzy.  Modern horror trailers are pretty formulaic and even when unique and interesting horror movies get made their advertising still makes them look like standard Paranormal Activity ripoff, which is why you hear stories of confused audiences walking into movies like  mother! expecting them to play like Insidious movies.  The new horror thriller A Quiet Place is a good example of how hard it is to tell the promising studio horror films from the not so promising ones.  The film’s trailers made it look like just another standard jump scare movie but with a new gimmick, and it had a pretty questionable pedigree as well.  The movie stars and was directed by John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski, who does not strike me as a very scary person, and it was produced by Michael Bay’s horror shingle Platinum Dunes which is like and even less ambitious iteration of the Blumhouse studio.  So the movie didn’t look too promising, but low and behold, once it was actually screened for critics it suddenly shot up into the high 90s on Rotten Tomatoes and instantly became a must see.

The film is set in something of a post-apocalyptic near-future.   Earth’s population has apparently been ravaged when non-sentient alien monsters brought by a falling meteor killed a massive number of people.  The thing about these aliens though is that they’re blind, so there are ways to escape them, but if you make any sort of loud sound they spring up and kill you and you never really know where they’re hidden so you have to be quiet all the time.  That is where the family of survivors we follow in the movie come in.  The family primarily consists of a father named Lee (John Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), a deaf teenage daughter named Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and a younger son named Marcus (Noah Jupe).  For much of the film we watch them as they live on a remote farm they’ve moved to in order to escape as much of the destruction as possible.  There is however trouble on the horizon as Evelyn is pregnant with another child and it isn’t entirely clear how they are going to keep a screaming baby safe in a world where making the slightest sound can get you killed.  With the family also increasingly falling apart over other existing tensions they could be facing quite the test going forward.

The general “quiet” of The Quiet Place is one of the things that makes it stand out the most.  In general horror movies have less volume than most mainstream movies (aside from the occasional “jump” moments when it is very much not quiet) but this one takes it to a new extreme as the characters do everything in their power to keep from attracting the creatures.  In fact American Sign Language could almost be said to be the film’s main language rather than spoken English.  There are actually a lot of neat little world building things in the movie about how these people manage to make lives for themselves without sound.  They walk everywhere barefoot for example and we see them spreading paths of sand everywhere in order to accommodate this.  In this sense the movie actually reminded me a lot of the 2007 film I Am Legend, which was also at its best when it was showing how isolated characters can build a life for themselves during a post-apocalypse with a little ingenuity.  Also like that movie I found myself being a lot more interested by the post-apocalyptic world building than I was by the attacking CGI monsters in the third act.

Ultimately the film doesn’t fall apart quite as hard as that aforementioned Will Smith movie, in part because we’ve progressed to the point where even third rate CGI doesn’t look that bad.  Really the problem probably has less to do with the special effects and more to do with the fact that these aliens lack a certain primal fear factor.  They look less like the things of nightmares and more like the kind of enemies I’d blast with a BFG in “Doom.”  That kind of approach works better when you go all in and just show the snarling monsters in all their disgusting glory ala The Thing but this movie uses them more to be sort of quasi-ghosts who haunt our protagonists.  But at the end of the day that’s not really what’s most important as the threat of the monsters is clearly more of the focus here.  Still, I think there was a better version of this movie, in fact I’m sure there is because it was called It Comes at Night and it came out last year to a great deal of public apathy.  That was a movie with a similar interest in post-apocalyptic survival and family dynamics but was less interested in adding in jump scares and it was more interested in preserving certain mysteries than laying out clear answers.  In many ways this just kind of feels like a watered down and admittedly more audience-pleasing version of that movie and it’s always going to seem a bit second rate to me because of that.  Still, it’s a cool little horror movie and certainly better than I would have thought from a first impression.

*** out of Five

Blockers(4/5/2018)


I recently took a trip to New York City and was struck by a lot of things both big and small about the city but perhaps the most pertinent thing that jumped out at me was that the week I went there nearly every square inch of Manhattan Island seemed to be covered in advertisements for the movie Blockers.  The amount of advertising for the movie already seemed heavier than normal long before I found myself on the East Coast.  I’ve seen all sorts of TV commercials for it and Youtube seemed to put an ad for it in front of every video I found myself watching, but when I got to the Big Apple I was struck seeing that rooster logo on top of damn near every taxi cab and the poster posted above every subway entrance and also on every subway platform.  I’m sure that people who actually live in the city that never sleeps are used to this sort of onslaught of printed marketing but it seemed a bit novel to me.  Part of this might simply be that I noticed this advertising more than all the advertising for the likes of Truth or Dare because I already thought it was going to be a funny movie and was already king of thinking about seeing the movie.  But maybe the studio knew what it was doing because on the movie’s opening day I found myself unwinding from a busy day of walking around the city by going to the Regal E-Walk 13 on 42nd street to sit back and watch this mainstream sex comedy.

The film is set over the course of prom day and night at a high school in a Chicago suburb.  Specifically the focus is on a group of three longtime friends: The blonde cheerleader type Julie (Kathryn Newton), the athletic and somewhat wild Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and the nerdy Samantha (Gideon Adlon), who has been questioning her sexuality.  As the three are talking about their prom plans it emerges that Julie is planning to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time that night and upon hearing this Kayla decides that she also wants to lose her virginity to her date to “get it over with” and while neither girl tries to pressure their friend Samantha finds herself getting in on the “#sexpact2018” too despite minimal attraction to her male prom date, possibly in a desire to confirm her preferences.  What they don’t know is that their various parents have semi-accidentally intercepted their text messages about these plans. Julie’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena), and Samantha’s estranged father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) all decide for various reasons that they want to stop this from happening and thus become the “blockers” referred to in the title, which is an MPAA approved shortening of “cockblockers.”

Blockers has a bit of a challenge on its hands in that it needs to find a relatively plausible reason for three seemingly progressive parents in 2018 to go to such lengths to “block” their daughters from having sexual encounters something like three months before they go to the even more sexually charged environment that is college.  Of the three parents only John Cena’s character really seems to be going on this journey for the usual patriarchal reasons: his daughter is “daddy’s little girl” and her man-bun toting prom date seems unworthy of her.  The Ike Barinholtz character, on the other hand, seems to be against this whole panic in the first place and when he does get caught up in it it’s mainly because he thinks his daughter (who he knows to be closeted) is being pressured into the situation and the Leslie Mann character just seems overly attached to her daughter and her “blocking” quest is sort of a manifestation of her worries about losing her after it’s discovered that she’s planning to attend a college that’s out of state.  The movie also has a moment at around its midpoint where the Cena character’s wife steps in and gives a big counter-argument about what all these characters are doing.

What makes the film a bit different from other comedies like this is that it basically has six principal characters, and they do a pretty reasonable job of building each of these characters despite how crowded it is but there are moments where corners need to be cut.  As this is a raunchy comedy of the post Apatow era the stories eventually do converge into a sort of sentimental climax and given the ensemble nature of the movie that means there are something like six different “meaningful” moments in the third act as each of the girls has to have a revelation with both their respective boyfriends and their parents, but the movie does manage to juggle all of these pretty effectively.  From a comedy perspective the movie probably could have benefited from a slightly more seasoned cast.  John Cena certainly expands a bit after having dipped his toe into the comedy waters with Trainwreck, but he still sort of feels like a budget version of The Rock, and Ike Barinholtz is mostly just transferring over his not overly memorable character from Neighbors.  The teenage cast mostly shows promise but they aren’t necessarily seasoned comic actors either.

Leslie Mann certainly fares the best of everyone here, but the material is mostly solid and director Kay Cannon does a good job getting the best out of the cast she was given, though I do think she would have done better to leave out some of the more gross-out gags that seem to be in here more out of obligation than real necessity.  The “chugging” scene seen in most of the trailers really did nothing for me and another scene where three people straight-up vomit from drunkenness despite being seemingly sober about an hour later felt like little more than an attempt to one-up other movies.  It really didn’t even need to be this way, if you look back on a movie like Superbad or even something like The Hangover there really isn’t really that much in the way of on-screen bodily fluids in either movie.  Even the diarrhea scene Bridesmaids was almost entirely done with suggestion.  Outside of those two scenes though the movie is a pretty solid comedy that manages to stay on the right side of stupid.  This certainly isn’t a new comedy classic, but it comes after a pretty long drought of respectable mainstream comedy.  In 2017 pretty much the only Hollywood comedy worth a damn was Girls Trip and even that didn’t really do a whole lot for me, so with this one movie 2018 has already beat its predecessor in this one regard.

***1/2 out of Five 

Ready Player One(4/1/2018)

Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there.  I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it.  There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well.  What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short.  Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book.  Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book?  Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not.  Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot.  This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century.  After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first.  One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in.  His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.

When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me.  Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself.  It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself?  That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s.  The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one.  For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong.  We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.

It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept.  For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day.  The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off.  It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty.  Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies.  Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once?  It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this.  The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff.  It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.

Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life.  The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars.  This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work.  The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix.  It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work.  Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large.  There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else.  I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged.  It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.

The human side of the story is… serviceable.  If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory.  The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game.  From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far.  In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story.  At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material.  By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis.  This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful.  I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.

***1/2 out of Five

Isle of Dogs(3/28/2018)


Over the years I’ve made it known in various reviews of family movies that I kind of hate children.  However, it should probably be known that my grumpiness does not end there, I also hate dogs!  In fact I hate dogs way more than I dislike children, who will at least grow up to be something less annoying one day while dogs will always be dogs.  I’ve never owned a dog even while I was younger and everything about owning one seems like a pain in the ass. You have to walk them everywhere, clean up all their shit, and listen to them bark all the time.  I have no desire to own a cat either but that seems like a much more reasonable prospects as they can pretty much take care of themselves outside of feedings and litterbox cleaning.  But really what annoys me about dogs is the way they seem to turn their owners into crazy people.  The way some of these “dog lovers” talk they seem completely delusional about how much these animals care about them.  They’ve got it in their heads that these creatures actually “love” them rather than that they’re doing what they’ve been trained to do over the centuries in order to get food from humans.  All this is to say that when I learned that director Wes Anderson was going to follow up The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stop-motion animated movie about an island full of talking dogs I found myself groaning a little as I could easily picture how easily that could turn into cutesy nonsense, but Wes Anderson has made groan-inducing ideas work before so I was willing to give it a shot.

Wes Anderson’s films generally don’t take place in realistic universes even when he has regular actors in them but when he goes for animation he really goes all out and this is not an exception.  The film takes place in an imagined near-future Japan where the dog population had become so out of control and afflicted by diseases that the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) signed an order to have all the dogs removed and sent to an uninhabited island filled with garbage and the first dog to go is his own family dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).  From there we flash-forward and start following a group of dogs consisting of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston).  Of those five Chief is kind of the odd ma… dog out as he was a stray dog before ending up on the island and has always rejected the notion that dogs should be obedient servants to humans.  The action really kicks off when a twelve year old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the adopted son of the aforementioned mayor Kobayashi, flies a small airplane to the Isle of Dogs in search of his beloved Spots and meets up with the film’s main group of canines who decide to help him out on his quest, which of course proves to be more dangerous than they expect.

Wes Anderson’s previous film to use stop-motion animation was of course his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that was generally liked by critics but was a box office disappointment.  I think where the studio went wrong marketing that movie was that they hoped that it was going to cross over to the traditional family film market more than it did, which was probably a mistake because the central joke of that movie, showing animals talking and acting like yuppies, was kind of going to go over the heads of most young people.  Personally, I liked that movie for the most part but that one joke it goes for over and over again did start to wear on me after a while and I ultimately think it’s a lesser Wes Anderson because of it.  This follow-up also has some of that “animals talk like human hipsters” joke as well, especially when Chief interacts with a lady dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but there is a bit more going on in this one on top of that.  The movie is a lot more interested in the ways that animals interact with humans than Fantastic Mr. Fox did, likely owing to the fact that this is about domestic rather than wild animals and it also comes up with more fantastical world-building owing to the fact that it’s set in this odd sort of dystopian Japan.

The Japan depicted in the film is of course a rather fantastical version of the country, in much the way that The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a sort of pastiche of pre-war Europe rather than the actual nation of Hungary.  I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically Japanese baked into this story about dogs being sent to islands, but Anderson’s fascination with the country clearly gives the movie a lot of its flavor.  Some of the film’s logic about all of this is a bit inconsistent.  A title card early on suggests that the film’s Japanese characters will speak entirely in their native language without subtitles unless translated by a third party, which is interesting but the movie so frequently finds exceptions to this rule that I kind of wonder why they bothered.  It’s also a bit odd that Anderson chose to make all his dog characters into essentially American characters by giving them names like Spots and Duke and having them voiced by Americans even though they’re theoretically supposed to be Japanese dogs.  The film also plays a bit fast and loose with how able certain characters, especially Atari are able to interact with these dogs and understand the human-like intelligence that Anderson has opted to give them.

I do wonder to some extent what Anderson is trying to say with this movie, if anything.  If you look at it sideways you could see something of an allegory in it to the Trump era in that mayor Kobayashi is essentially deporting these dogs and claiming to be doing so for some semi-sensible reasons while actually just being prejudiced against them because of his association with an ancient cat-loving samurai clan.  A lot of that is a bit in the background though and its foreground stories are a little more curious, namely Chief’s arc in which he rejects humanity only to then allow himself to become a servant to Atari in Spots’ place.  I would think that if Anderson was trying to afford human-like intelligence and dignity to these dogs that this story of a dog coming to accept this role as a servant to a human.  Maybe that’s supposed to be an allegory for “settling down” but the power dynamics of such a relationship is a bit different… or maybe that’s just the dog hater in me not finding this as cute as a normal person would.

Ultimately my final verdict on this comes down more to form than to message.  I generally like Wes Anderson’s early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the best, which are different from some of his later movies in that his style came more from film grammar, music selection, and acting choices than from elaborate set decoration and world-building and the more successful he gets the more he’s been enabled to make these heavily constructed films like The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel which feel increasingly detached from the real world.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do still like those movies and admire their audacity but I do still kind of miss that other Wes Anderson that we haven’t really seen since Moonrise Kingdom.  These stop-motion films are like that problem but turned up to eleven and are even further removed from the Wes Anderson I want.  But I would probably be doing myself a disservice by pining for Wes Anderson to deliver what I want from him rather than enjoying what he’s actually interested in delivering and there’s plenty to enjoy in Isle of Dogs.

***1/2 out of Five