Hunt for the Wilderpeople(8/4/2016)

There’s a sort of unofficial genre out there in the film marketplace, let’s call it the “family movie for kids with cool parents (FMFKWCP)” genre.  These are movies that may or may not be made for children but which are semi-family friendly and are also made outside of the Hollywood system.  These are movies that are made outside of the Hollywood system and which aren’t marketed directly to kids and aren’t made to have parents reluctantly drag their children to after having been begged for a week.  Rather, these are movies that parents seek out and take their kids to whether or not said kids know what they’re getting into because the parent wants to expand their kids’ horizons just a little bit and have heard through word of mouth that whether the kids know what they’re in for they will appreciate the movie once they get there.  The emperor of the FMFKWCP genre, from an American perspective anyway, is almost certainly Hayao Miyazaki but the “genre” usually takes the form of a live action film, often one from a director (usually a foreign director from an English speaking country) who’s known for more mature work but who’s decided to make something a bit more whimsical than usual.  When I was a kid the film that filled that niche was an Irish-set John Sayles movie called The Secret of Roan Inish but I’ve seen other ones come along like Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, Danny Boyle’s Millions, and Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot.  I would say that, while it skirts the line between family film and film for general audiences, the latest film from New Zealander Taika Waititi would also basically one for this strange little subset of film.

The film is set in rural New Zealand right on the edge of “the bush.”  As the film begins a Child Protective Services agent named Paula (Rachel House) is bringing a twelve year old kid named Ricky (Julian Dennison) out to a remote farm where a woman named Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has agreed to take him in as a foster parent along with her husband who goes by the name Hec (Sam Neill).  Bella is a wildly positive and endlessly patient if slightly dorky woman who is in many ways the best possible foster mother one could expect for a troubled youth.  Hec on the other hand is sullen and impatient and less interested in the whole endeavor, but he’s not abusive or anything so much as he’s a bit withdrawn.  Ricky initially hates it out in the boonies but comes to like it in large part because of Bella’s patience and love, but things quickly go awry when Bella suddenly dies of natural causes.  Hec seems like a less loving foster parent but seems willing to stick it out, that is until child protective services decide that this is no longer a suitable home environment and give notice that Ricky will be taken away.  Ricky isn’t having any of this so he decides to run away into the bush.  Knowing that Ricky is completely out of shape and lacks survival skills Hec chases after him.  With both of them seemingly missing, the authorities come to the conclusion that Ricky has been kidnapped and start chasing after both of them.

Taika Waititi was not a filmmaker I took all that seriously until fairly recently.  Until last year he was probably most known for making strange comedy called Eagle Vs. Shark, but last year he directed and starred in an over-achieving horror/comedy called What We Do In the Shadows.  That was a good movie but it still kind of made him look like a comedian with a camera rather than a great auteur but with this movie he seems to be stepping it up in a big way behind the camera.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t still a lot of comedy here because there is, it just isn’t the kind of improvisational comedy that’s come to dominate what we expect from that genre today.  In fact this is the kind of movie that has more laughs in it than the audience is likely to remember given that it’s only one part of the appeal rather than the main attraction.

Ricky and Hec make a good pair of opposites to put up against each other, partly because they both fit into archetypes while never being entirely defined by them.  Ricky is labeled as a juvenile delinquent early on but you get a sense that a lot of his crimes are not terribly serious and while he fancies himself a “gangster” and names his pet dog Tupac the movie never overdoes it with the wannabe thug jokes and while it clearly views him as a wannabe it doesn’t ignore the legitimate plight he may have actually suffered.  Meanwhile Hec also manages to be a bit more complex than he initially seems.  At one point he’s jokingly called “Crocodile Dundee” but he isn’t entirely defined by that and he becomes increasingly interesting as you learn more about his past and his relationship with his deceased aunt.  It doesn’t hurt that Sam Neil is doing some of his best work in a while, I hardly even recognized him at first given how button up he is in other movies like Jurassic Park and The Piano.  The side characters are also a lot better than I expected them to be, especially the child protective services agent who is sort of the villain of the movie through her “principal in Ferris Bueller” level of obsession with this one case.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople poses something of a challenge for me as a critic because it’s a movie that really doesn’t do a whole lot wrong.  For what it’s trying to do the thing hardly ever misses a beat… and yet at the end of the day I’m not really the target audience for the film and it really isn’t my thing and to some extent I can only be so excited by its success.  There’s a certain predictability to the movie, you kind of know where it’s going (spoiler, the child and his uncle bond over the course of the adventure.  Shocking I know) and at a certain point there is a bit of a “been there done that” quality to the whole thing even if it’s really well executed this time around.  I can give the film a pretty high score but it’s never going to be the kind of thing that’s ever going to be my favorite movie of the year or anything.  Still I’m definitely going to be taking this Taika Waititi guy more seriously… oh wait, his next movie is Thor: Ragnarok?  Well when he’s done with that I’ll start taking him seriously.

Star Trek Beyond(7/31/2016)

To say I was way less excited for Star Trek Beyond than I should have been for a goddamn Star Trek movie is a pretty big understatement.  I say that as someone who has a pretty high tolerance for bad Star Trek.  Like, as much as I like the old Star Trek TV series I’m kind of the first to admit that something like a third of the episodes of the various series kind of suck and half of the original cast and Next Generation movie adaptations (the odd ones) are comparatively weak.  However, as inconsistent as Star Trek has been in the past it’s always felt like it was done in the right spirit and had a charm that carried it and that is the problem with the recent reboots of the franchise.  J.J. Abram’s first Star Trek was extremely well received in 2009 but I wasn’t so impressed.  I liked it but I didn’t think it was anything too special and I feel like its legacy has more or less borne that out.  People generally don’t hate it but very few people look back on it as some kind of classic of the 2000s… it’s kind of been forgotten.  Then there was its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that wasn’t bad so much as it was brought down by some really bad ideas.  It had the look and feel of a superior sequel but there were aspects of it that were just too stupid to be overlooked and forgiven.  Then it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be leaving the franchise to helm some other science fiction series that was probably more in touch with his sensibilities, to which I was about ready to say “good riddance” but he was then replaced by Justin Lin, who was most famous for having directed four straight entries of the “The Fast and The Furious” franchise.  Now, I enjoy the F&F movies to some degree and I do think Lin was good for that series, but nothing about that resume screams “this guy will bring the cerebral back to the series” and the trailers that followed seemed to suggest as much.  As such I skipped the movie its opening weekend and waited a whole week to see it… which saying it doesn’t seem that punitive… but to have me being so nonchalant about seeing a Trek movie means a lot about how far my expectations have fallen.

Star Trek Beyond picks up a couple of years after the end of “Into Darkness” and the crew of the enterprise has finally started on their famous five year mission to boldly go where no one has gone before.  We open with Kirk (Chris Pine) on a diplomatic mission to deliver a peace offering to a group of aliens who are not terribly receptive to it and ends up beaming back to his ship with the artifact and return to the Yorktown Space Station.  Soon after they arrive a ship of unknown origin comes racing to the station broadcasting a mayday call sign.  The alien woman on board explains that she is the last survivor of a mission on a planet hidden behind a nebula and that the rest of her crew is still there in need of saving.  Because of its advanced navigational equipment the Enterprise is selected to embark with this woman on a rescue mission but soon finds that there’s more going on on this planet than meets the eye and that they are heading toward grave danger.

Star Trek Beyond has one major advantage over its two predecessor films: it has the origin story 100% out of the way.  Kirk is the captain of the enterprise and he’s finally over his youthful arrogance and no longer acts like a cocky teenager.  The film is no longer dwelling on the alternate universe thing established by the first film and it generally isn’t trying to be too clever by half this time around.  In many ways this makes the film feel more like the original TV series than the other movies and can be roughly compared to one of the show’s standalone episodes where an away crew explores some crazy planet with some weird thing happening on the surface.  This is not the worst approach to take all things considered and reminded me a bit of the “bigger than average TV episode” approach that worked well enough for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: Insurrection.  Given that this series kind of needed to step back and course correct I don’t mind the decision, but it does mean that there’s sort of a cap on how much could be accomplished by the movie.

The action scenes in this movie are… well most of them are very good but none of them are really GREAT.  Justin Lin has set aside most of the crazy stunt work that he employed in the Fast and Furious series but has maintained his knack for solid blocking and choreography.  There’s a very good scene early in the film which has the Enterprise at its most vulnerable as well as a pretty cool fight at the end.  All of that is consistently fun but none of these are actions scenes for the ages that people will be talking about years from now.  The movie is also saddled with some of the usual summer blockbuster action movie drawbacks as well.  The villain’s motivations do not really make all that much sense for one thing and much of the film’s plot hinges on the characters chasing around an ill-defined McGuffin.  What’s more the film’s meager attempts to engage in Star Trekian philosophizing kind of fall on their face.  There’s a sort of debate established between Uhura and the villain about whether or not Starfleet’s unity makes it strong, with the villain arguing that their unity makes them weak.  Interesting concept but one at odds with the rest of the film.  This villain who seems to hate unity so much is actually in charge of an army that operates on a hive mind which is pretty much unity writ large and, without giving too much away, this unity emphatically does not make this army more strong.

So what does this installment say about the state of Star Trek and about its new director Justin Lin.  It’s a little hard to compare this to the previous two Star Trek movies in that in some ways I think more highly of it simply because there are fewer things in it that piss me off.  I don’t know, I don’t want to encourage franchise filmmakers to be less ambitious but it is nice to see one that is able to relax a little and isn’t desperately trying to surpass its predecessor in every way.  It’s the kind of approach that I kind of wish the James Bond movies would start taking, that’s a series that is really at its best when it isn’t trying to upset the applecart.  As for Justin Lin, he maybe benefits a little less from this approach.  The movie is certainly well crafted, but we already knew he could capably craft a blockbuster.  This would have been a perfect vehicle to show that there was more to Lin than simple craftsmanship and that he could craft a blockbuster that was capable of reaching a bit higher and I think he kind of squandered it.  Still, this is coming out in what feels like a historically lame summer movie season and this isn’t the best of time to be too picky about our entertainments.

Disneyology 101: The Reitherman Years

Director credits are always a little weird when it comes to mainstream animated movies.  There are certainly names like Brad Bird and Henry Selick that actually mean something when you see them but usually the “directors” on animated movies are just the people doing the most busy work and the true auteur is either a team of people or a producer overseeing a whole division.  During the 30s/40s “golden age” there would often be something like six or seven credited directors, and during their 50s comeback they would routinely have three often interchangeable directors credited to each film… in part because we all knew who was really in charge: Walter Elias Disney himself.  However, things changed in the 1960s.  Disney’s health was waning and whatever attention he had to give was directed towards other endeavors like building theme parks and hosting TV shows, something was going to change in their process and it was in this decade that a man named Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman stepped in as the head of the animation division at Disney and would start to have a director or co-director credit on all the movies that the studio made for a period.  I’m not exactly sure yet if his had is actually noticeable on these movies, but it’s clear that his tenure does mark a distinct era in the studio’s history and that he was somehow able to guide them through a rather tenuous period.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

As I look at the history of Disney I begin to see a bit of a pattern: the studio continually respond to success by increasing their budgets and pushing their art forward… only to end up having a big budget dud at one point that sets them back and forces them to go back to square one and make something on the cheap.  After Pinocchio and Fantasia underperformed they were forced to dumb down their style and make Dumbo.  After they were derailed by World War II they again pared down their style and made Cinderella on the cheap.  And it would appear that the same thing happened after Sleeping Beauty went wildly over-budget and they were once again punished for their ambition/hubris.  Their next film was probably their biggest budget slash yet with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a movie with none of the Cinemascope grandeur or wildly detailed animation of Sleeping Beauty.  In fact the movie is largely defined by the introduction of another technology behind the scenes courtesy of a little company called Xerox.  This new technology would transfer drawings directly to animation cells rather than having them inked onto them by hand, and you definitely see them struggling with this new method here.  The detail is greatly diminished, there are noticeable outlines around characters, and color saturation is greatly affected.  To my eyes it’s their ugliest movie yet, but I remember finding their style change in the early 50s being jarring at first as well and I eventually got over it.

Generally Disney movies fall into two categories: fairy tale/children’s lit adaptations and talking animal movies.  This obviously falls into the latter category and is also notable for being a second dog movie in close proximity with Lady and the Tramp.  In fact this could almost be seen as a spiritual sequel to Lady and the Tramp as that movie ended with dogs forming a family unit while this one more or less begins there.  That’s about where the comparisons between the two end as that earlier film was a well thought out romance with an interesting class consciousness to flesh it out while One Hundred and ONe Dalmatians is primarily just a movie about rescuing puppies who have fallen victim to one of the most ridiculous kidnapping schemes in film history.  The early parts of the movie are pretty good but as soon as Cruella de Vil enters the picture everything gets stupid fast.  For one thing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the owners of these Dalmatians are hanging out with this bitch in the first place.  She’s introduced as an “old schoolmate” of the wife, but she appears to be twice her age and she’s also really obviously evil, like, to the point where her name is a play of the words “cruel devil” and the husband has written an entire song about how awful she is.  Why the hell was she allowed near these dogs in the first place.  What’s more, her scheme makes very little sense.  There’s clearly no market for dog fur, so she must be wanting to murder and skin man’s best friend just so she can walk around in a polk-a-dotted fur coat herself.  Even if one was this fur-crazed it’s unclear why she thinks kidnapping these dogs is the best way to do this.  They do appear to live in a world where “dognapping” incidence ends up on the front page of the paper and triggers investigations by Scotland Yard and it did appear to be possible to simply buy other 84 dogs necessary to make this coat.

There are other plot holes I could point out (like the fact that the adult Dalmatians suddenly appear at de Vil’s hideout despite not having transportation or having been told where to go), but the bigger problem is that this movie is just kind of dull and pointless.  It feels like they realized that Dalmatians in large numbers would be an ideal subject to test their new Xerox technology on and they threw together a half-assed story in order to justify it.  Fortunately for Disney cute dogs do sell movie tickets and the movie ended up being a pretty big success and the studio was once again saved from a financial bind.  Like most Disney movies from this era it is seen as yet another classic but I think that reputation is not really earned.  It’s not an offensively bad movie exactly but it certainly seems kind of half-asses compared to what came before both narratively and stylistically.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Out of all the Disney movies from the studio’s “classic era” (which more or less comprises the movies released during Walt Disney’s lifetime) The Sword in the Stone is easily the one I know the least about.  I definitely never saw it when I was younger and of all these movies it’s probably the one that had the least impact on pop culture.  There have been other movies in this retrospective like Alice in Wonderland  that I don’t have much of a memory of, but at least that’s based on a story that’s been adapted a million other times.  I suppose you could say the same about The Sword in the Stone given that it’s based on Arthurian legend, but it’s based on a very narrow portion of the King Arthur story, a part that I’m not too familiar with.  Specifically it’s based on a 1938 novel by T. H. White, which was the first part of his tetralogy called “The Once and Future King,” and focused entirely on King Arthur’s childhood leading up to his drawing of the titular sword from the stone.  The movie actually made a lot of money when it first came out but it’s fallen out of favor for a reason: the movie is terrible.  It’s not just bad by the standards of other Disney movies, it’s piss poor even when compared to your average animated movies from other studios.

The film opens with the “live action storybook” opening that was seen previously in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, seemingly to align it with those other fairy tale movies but it doesn’t really play out like any of them.  There’s no princess for one thing, no romance, only barely a villain, and the structure is generally different.  In fact this film’s structure really seems odd to me as its extremely episodic and largely plays out like an extended prologue (probably because it’s based on the first in a series of four novels).  At the film’s center are three “lessons” that Merlin gives to Arthur in which the two of them turn into fish, squirrels, and finally birds and it isn’t really clear what he’s learning from any of them.  Merlin constantly tells him to value brains over brawn but it’s harldy clear what being a fish has to do with that and the squirll bit is even more perplexing as the whole skit seems to mostly revolve around Arthur nearly getting raped by a lady squrill who has a Pepe Le Piu thing going on.  In fact they never actually seem to get to the lesson in any of these sequences, Arthur just keeps almost getting killed in them before Merlin saves him.  In fact Arthur does almost nothing for himself throughout the movie and none of his lessons actually comes to anything.  It’s as if the movie The Karate Kid consisted almost entirely of Daniel waxing cars, never being told what that has to do with martial arts, and then having Mr. Miyagi fighting off the Cobra Kai for him at the end, and then maybe having a title card at the end saying that Daniel would one day become the next Bruce Lee or something.  It’s the worst “heroes journey” story imaginable.  I suppose you’re supposed to surmise given you existing knowledge of the King Arthur character that these lessons about becoming animals are really formative, but Merlin’s preachy credo of academic learning doesn’t exactly jive with what we know about Arthur, who is probably more associated with smiting people with Excalibur than he is with scholarly study.

From a production end this movie is also a pretty big fail.  The animation in the movie is… it might be going to far to say it’s horrible because I’m sure there were other studios doing worse at this time, but it’s a far cry from the great looking stuff they did earlier.  One Hundred and One Dalmatians sort of got away with this new Xerox look because it had a different setting than most of their previous movies and had kind of a unique style to it, but this movie invites comparisons to better looking movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and woefully unimpressive when compared to both.   This also marks the first movie with songs written by the Sherman Brothers, which I’m told is a big deal because they would write some pretty famous songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but very little of their talent is apparent here because the music in this thing sucks.  The most famous song is a bit of lyrical gibberish called “Higitus Figitus” which is a complete ripoff of the already lame “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”  Finally I despised the movie’s sense of humor.  Part of Merlin’s magic is that he knows about the future and about things that haven’t yet been discovered and brings this up in some of the most eye rolling fourth wall breaks you can imagine.  I suppose in many ways he’s a precursor to the genie from Aladdin in this way but the dude doing the voice is no Robin Williams.  This reaches its nadir in the last scene where Merlin shows up to Arthur’s coronation in Bermuda shorts and references that this all may one day become a movie.  Eyeroll.  There’s almost nothing about this movie I liked.   It’s a failure creatively, narratively, artistically, and cinematically and Disney is right to want to downplay this in their history as much as possible.

The Jungle Book (1967)

On December 15th, 1966 Walt Disney died of lung cancer after forty six years of working in film and creating an animation empire.   This news was greeted with worldwide mourning and in a bigger way it seemed like the end of an era.  Louis Mayer had already died at this point, Darryl F. Zanuck was close to being booted from 20th Century Fox, and Jack Warner was three years from retiring at Warner Brothers.  It seemed like the end of an era and it wasn’t clear what would happen to the company he built.  In his last years Walt had one final mission: to make his swan song.  It would be an exaggeration to view The Jungle Book as being the product of his singular vision and the film’s credits certainly wouldn’t indicate him as having had more creative input on it than with any of the studio’s other films, but all evidence points to him having had a more hands on role in the film than he did on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, and his influence definitely shows as this is a clear improvement over both of those movies.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Mowgli sucks.  He’s this really punchable little shit who does dumb stuff constantly and seems to be on the verge of getting himself killed throughout the movie.  This would be a bigger problem if I thought he was the film’s true protagonist, but he isn’t really.  That distinction would fall on Bagheera and Baloo, who are sort of the Henry IV and Falstaff to Mowgli’s Prince Hal.  In fact the side characters in this movie across the board are quite strong, in part because this is one of the first Disney movies to cast somewhat recognizable names for the voice cast… well, recognizable at the time anyway.  The villainous Shere Khan, voiced by veteran character actor George Sanders , is a really cleverly drawn foe given his generally understated mannerism and interesting motives.  King Louis is also a really fun (if somewhat incidental) presence both because his mannerisms are very well animated and also because jazz bandleader Louis Prima really kills it on the “I Wanna Be Like You” number.  The only voice performance I didn’t care for was Sterling Holloway as Kaa the python, which is a character with some cool animation behind him but who probably shouldn’t have had the same voice as Winnie the Pooh.

In general this just seems like the first Disney movie that’s really interested in engaging with the slang and music of its time… or at least the slang and music of the ten or so years preceding it.  I can definitely see that instinct backfiring in a big way, but here it mostly works.  The film’s animation also seemed like an improvement over what they were doing in the last two movies.  They’re still animating with Xerox machines but they seem to be getting better at it and they used more hand painting for the backgrounds this time around.  Make not mistake, the animation here still doesn’t hold a candle to what the studio was doing in the 30s, 40s, or even 50s but it didn’t bug me as much as the last two movies did.  Ultimately this movie did work for me although at times it felt more like a series of sketches than a full narrative.  There’s an interesting theme somewhere in there about whether Mowgli really “belongs” in the jungle which is never really fully explored and the ending where Mowgli does a complete 180 turn on his insistence on remaining in the jungle the second he gets a glimpse of some poontang is kind of a cop-out.  The rest of the world seemed to like it as was a big hit at the box office, well-liked by critics, and to this day is probably one of Disney’s five most famous movies of all time.  By pretty much any measure it was a pretty good movie for Walt to go out on.

The Aristocats (1970)

Disney’s 1970 film The Arisocats was moderate box office hit in 1970.  I repeat, the movie was a moderate box office hit.  It made about $20 million at the box office (I think, it can be kind of hard to tell with movies made before 1980) which is around what other Disney movies of the era made.  It got decent reviews too.  You wouldn’t know that today however because the movie hasn’t had anywhere close to the cultural impact of other Disney movies.  If it’s remembered at all its for its place in film history as the moment a lot of people identify as Disney’s shark jump moment which not too coincidentally  comes right after the death of company patriarch Walt Disney.  Walt was not entirely divorced from this production.  The film started out as a proposed live action episode of Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” TV series (not sure how that would have worked) and shortly before his death Disney approved the story as an animated feature to follow The Jungle Book.  It would probably be inaccurate to say that it’s Disney’s most obscure film as that distinction probably goes to one of their various misfires in the 80s and early 2000s but it’s definitely the least well known of the Disney movies I’ve watched so far for this series.  Hell I didn’t even know what this thing was about before turning it on except that it presumably involved aristocratic cats.

So is this deserving of its crappy reputation?  Well it is and it isn’t.  If the movie has a bad reputation it isn’t because it’s the most awful thing the studio ever made, I can see why critics at the time gave it a pass anyway, but it doesn’t surprise me that the movie was swiftly forgotten as “forgettable” is probably the best word to describe it.  The movie is basically the “pampered female pet falls for a roguish street animal” plot of Lady and the Tramp combined with the “animals get kidnapped by a crazy person” plot of One Hundred and One Dalmatians but is less effective than both of them.  The romance feels secondary forced in a way that the Lady and the Tramp courtship didn’t and the kidnapping plot makes even less sense than Cruella De Vil’s scheme.  This lame butler is in a position where his boss is going to leave money to her cats which will then go to him after the kitties die… to me that doesn’t sound like a half bad deal.  He’s still going to get the money eventually (cats don’t live that long) and even if he did need those cats out of the way it makes zero sense for him to try to bump them off while their owner is still alive.  The second the cats are gone this old lady will have no incentive to leave the money to the butler anymore.  It’s moronic, and it doesn’t help that this butler isn’t moustache twirlingly fun as a villain the way Cruella is.  The plot isn’t really the problem though, the characters are.  We don’t really get to know that much about Dutchess the cat except for her role as a mother to the kittens, who are all quite annoying in part because the real kids who voice them don’t really give them distinct personalities.  Thomas O’Malley has a little more personality… but that personality is a lot like Baloo (also voiced by Phil Harris) to the point where it just seems like another lazy lift from a previous success.  The side characters are also kind of lame and none of the characters in the movie really sell us on the emotional stakes or even give us the sense that they’re in much danger.

There are some saving graces here.  For one thing, Disney has continued to improve on their use of Xerography to the point where the animation here finally looks like it’s at least on par with some of the stuff they made in the 50s.  The animation isn’t good enough to make the film a visual marvel or anything but it wasn’t a distraction like it was for the first two movies in this installment.  The songs in the movie aren’t half bad.  The Sherman brothers returned to write songs after their success with The Jungle Book and it would be the last Disney movie they’d work on.  The song “Thomas O’Malley Cat” works pretty well for Phil Harris and has some fairly complex lyrics that fit well in the melody.  The song that gets most widely cited is “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat,” which is a decent song but the scene it shows up in seems really superfluous and jazz music does not really make sense showing up in 1910 Paris.  In fact I’m not really sure why this thing was set in Paris anyway, the film doesn’t do a lot with the setting and given the music involved it would have made a lot more sense to set it in New Orleans.  So this movie wasn’t painful to watch exactly but it feels less more like the work of a competitor doing a Disney impression than like an actual Disney movie, so ultimately I feel like its status as the “forgotten” Disney movie is mostly deserved.

Robin Hood (1973)

I’ve mentioned before that Disney movies can generally be split into two categories: storybook movies (including fairy tale movies) and talking animal movies.  Robin Hood is the one place where these two strands of Disney movies combined into a sort of Super-Disney movie.  Like most of the fairy tale movies the film opens with a live action book being opened on a table and the story more or less plays out exactly as it would if it were a straightforward adaptation of the old late-medival folk tale, but all the characters are bipedal anthropomorphic animals.  I think they went the talking animal route with this one because, unlike earlier fairy tale adaptations they did, Disney had to contend with a number of previous Robin Hood adaptations starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks which were already classics in their own rights and they needed something to make this stand out given that it is more or less a standard re-telling of the most common Robin Hood story.  The selection of animals to characters is interesting in that most of the “commoners” are European woodland creatures while most of the villains are African jungle animals, possibly to reflect that they were stand-ins for Noman rulers rather than the native brits that the “common” characters represent.  Deciding to make Robin Hood a fox was certainly a smart choice and there is a certain logic in making Prince John a rather weak looking lion (especially giving his brother’s nickname).

Disney does not really have the easiest job in trying to get this story into a short 83 minute timespan.  The movie starts really abruptly more or less right in the middle of the story and has to establish the historical context through dialog later in the film.  The film also ends rather abruptly, with King Richard swooping in and Deus Ex Machinaing Prince John into jail.  This happy ending is totally historically inaccurate BTW, Richard spent about six months of his life in England and shortly after his return from the Crusades was killed violently during a siege (as depicted in the opening scene of the 2010 Ridley Scott Robin hood) and Prince John would be his successor, but I digress.  In many ways the film suffers from the same problem as Peter Pan in that it makes its villain such a source of comedy and its hero such a hyper-competent swashbuckler that there really isn’t that much suspense about how things will end up and whenever Robin Hood does make a mistake (like, provoking Prince John into punitively taxing his subjects in retaliation for Robin Hood’s blustery stunts) the film never really explores it.  There is a little bit of progress though in that they seem to be giving the film a hint of an edge by making the protagonist an outlaw.  The whole “rob from the rich, give to the poor” thing is a degree of moral relativism that I don’t know would have been present under Walt Disney’s squeaky clean standards.  The movie also has some very slightly bawdy (by family movie standards) jokes here and there involving boobs.

In general the visual design and animation in the movie is pretty decent.  It’s kind of the opposite of the last couple of movies in that the characters and objects look pretty decent but the backgrounds look really weak and washed out.  The film’s voice cast is also kind of odd.  Half the voice actors a British but half of them seem to be very noticeably American, including Phil Harris, who has been brought back for the third straight movie and has lazily been cast once again as an easygoing bear.  The whole film has a kind of strange sense of culture, emblemized by the decision to score the movie with bluegrass music performed by an omniscient minstrel voiced by country singer Roger Miller which seems really bizarre in this context.  There are a lot of strange choices here really and some of just don’t work at all and others they kind of get away with.  In general this movie seems to have a rather mixed reputation today, some people view it as one more step towards an era of irrelevance at Disney, but others seem to have fond memories of it and view it as one last gasp of greatness from the old Disney.  I sit somewhere in the middle on this, I think the movie has a lot of weaknesses but it is a little better to me than some of the studios worst efforts.

Collecting some thoughts

The usual narrative around Disney is that they totally dropped the ball shortly after Walt died and slowly ran the studio into the ground during the 70s and 80s before they were saved by the “Disney Renaissance” but it seems to me that they were already clearly slipping before then.  In fact, if it wasn’t for The Jungle Book this whole era would be entirely lackluster.  I started this out by asking if Wolfgang Reitherman’s hand would be noticeable and the answer is… not really.  It’s obvious that something shifted during this era but that seemed to have more to do with technological and budgetary change mixed with a sort of dearth of creativity from the team, I don’t think old Woolie is really the one to blame and despite what the credits say I don’t think he had more of a singular influence over any of these movies than the parade of co-directors we saw on the earlier movies.  To be fair to all involved, I don’t know that the 70s were ever going to be kind to Disney.  In the film world the 70s were a very “adult” decade and one of the often unexplored reasons for this was a demographic reason.  Everyone knows that the late 40s saw a “baby boom” in America and around the world and it probably isn’t a coincidence that the height of Disney’s profitability occurred during the 50s right when all those baby boomers were right in their demo, but by the late 60s and 70s those kids were grown and more interested in things like acid using motorcyclists, morose gangsters, and demonic possession.  With less of a possible audience base comes less resources and lesser ambitions and the sudden dip in Disney’s output at this stage starts to make at least a little sense.

Café Society(7/24/2016)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Through much of his career the narrative around Woody Allen is that he’s a good writer with a strong flair for directing actors but that he’s been kind of indifferent about his films’ visual style.  I don’t know that this narrative was ever true but in the last couple of years this accusation has seemed particularly inaccurate.  Unlike most of the films in his long career Allen’s last three movies have all been shot in widescreen and he’s more often than not been working with A-list cinematographers like Darius Khondji and Vilmos Zsigmond.  For his latest movie he’s working with another major DP, the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who helmed beautiful movies like The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor.  This also differs from the average Woody Allen movie in that it’s a period piece.  This is far from unprecedented in Allen’s filmography but it clearly has a larger budget than something like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Bullets Over Broadway and it draws a lot more attention to its set decoration and costuming.  All of this is not to say that Woody Allen has suddenly turned into David Fincher, he hasn’t, but he’s clearly continued to challenge himself in certain ways as a director even if he doesn’t always get credit for it.  So the movie looks great when compared to the rest of his films, the question then is if the narrative is worthy of this extra effort.

Set sometime during the 1930s, the film follows a young New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who has traveled to Hollywood planning to find work with his uncle Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell).  Upon arrival he quickly learns that Phil doesn’t have a lot of time to deal with him but does ask his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the young man around town.  He soon forms a friendship with Vonnie and quickly falls for her.  However, she rejects his advances, saying that she is in a relationship with a reporter who “travels a lot.”

On the “serious to farcical” spectrum of Woody Allen movies this probably sits somewhere towards the middle like most of his movies but maybe leaning towards the less comedic.  It has some decent chuckle inducing moments here and there but it’s fairly sincere in its interest in relationship dynamics and actually has a bit of a dark streak when it deals with a  sub-plot about Bobby’s older brother who appears to be a violent gangster by trade.  First and foremost though it’s a movie about a love triangle and, on a more thematic level, it’s about missed opportunities and regrets and the perils of using too much logic when deciding who you choose as a mate.  In fact I kind of suspect that movie is meant as a sort of coded defense of Allen’s much criticized marriage to Soon-Yi Previn.  Whenever he’s asked about that particular tabloid scandal Allen has always said something along the lines of “I know it sounds crazy but the heart wants what it wants.”  With this movie he’s created two characters who do not follow what their hearts want, marry for all the logical reasons, and they end the film regretting what could have been.  It certainly isn’t a one-to-one analogue with Woody Allen’s own situation but I’m pretty sure it was in the back of his mind when he wrote it.  There was a similar theme running through his 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight and I’m kind of surprised that more people didn’t pick up on it there.

Beyond that little reading and beyond the pretty sets and costumes, Café Society is a pretty average Woody Allen movie.  Jesse Eisenberg generally avoids being a Woody Allen stand-in, which is nice, but he does it by just kind of doing his usual “awkward guy shtick,” which kind of makes sense in the role early on but not so well in later scenes.  The film also has a handful of sub-plots and elements that kind of never get a payoff.  For instance there’s an early scene involving a hooker named Candy, which is actually a fairly funny scene, but it doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose in the plot and doesn’t really get brought back up at all.  The whole gangster brother plot line also never really seems to fully integrate.  It takes up a lot of screen time but it actually has very little to do with the course of the main story at the end of the day even though it is kind of interesting in its own right.  I’m something of a Woody Allen completist, I haven’t seen all his movies but I’m well on my way.  As such my standards for what makes a Woody Allen movie “good” or “worth seeing” are maybe a little different than a general audience member’s standards would be.  This one provided me with a couple variations on his usual formula and for me that’s enough to make it kind of interesting.  Others’ mileage will probably vary.

Home Video Round-Up: 8/7/2016

The Club (7/15/2016)

One of the under-appreciated world filmmakers is probably the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who’s done a lot to create something of a filmmaking renascence in Chile.  Oddly he’s now made two straight movies that have kind of been overshadowed by Best Picture winners.  His 2013 film No felt oddly similar to Ben Affleck’s Argo despite not having that many overt plot similarities, and now his latest film deals with some similar subject matter as Spotlight.  The film is set in a house where pedophile priests (and some priests who’ve been disgraced for other reasons) have been placed by the Catholic Church after they’ve gotten in trouble.  I think I liked the setup for this movie a lot better than the payoff.  There’s a great scene early on where the priests have to react to a man shouting accusations at them in front of their house and you’re excited to see where things are going but once the investigator arrives you feel like you’re just watching someone come to conclusions the audience has already made and his conflicted views about the way the church is handling things never really becomes a palpable conflict.  I also didn’t care for this greyhound racing related subplot that sort of takes over in the last act.  It’s an admirable bit of filmmaking but hardly Larrain’s best and not really worthy of its weighty subject matter.

**1/2 out of Five

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (7/28/2016)

I think this movie was done a disservice by its trailers.  Everything about the advertising campaign for this movie was trying to sell it as a zany comedy or perhaps as a broadly comedic satire, but that’s not really what the movie is going for.  In fact I don’t even really know that I’d call it a comedy at all even though there are more moments of levity in it than there is in your average movie set in a warzone.  The movie is largely a character study based on the memoir of an actual war reporter who finds herself oddly fulfilled when she starts reporting on the ground in Afghanistan.  The movie makes the role of the correspondent seem like a kind of hazy experience where intense on the field experiences are intercut with boozy antics back at “the base” to ease the tension.  There are a number of interesting little details about the life of a correspondent here and there, and in general it’s an interesting circumstance to observe, but the film doesn’t really have too much of a plot arc and you can kind of see what the character’s trajectory is going to be pretty early on.  Still, this is a lot more interesting than its weak reception upon release would have you think.

***1/2 out of Five

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (7/30/2016)

I don’t know a lot about Tony Robins and I have little respect for the self-help industry.  If it weren’t for the fact that Joe Berlinger had his name on this thing I doubt I would have considered even watching this thing and even with that famous documentation’s name on it I certainly went in with a lot of skepticism.  The film is not some kind of expose of Robbins and instead takes a rather uncritical look at highlights from one of his week long seminars.  Because Berlinger never really states his intentions and because this at least seems to be made independently albeit with Robbins’ participation the film puts you in the place of making up your own mind as to what the directors’ agenda is and how you should feel about what you’re witnessing.  I can certainly say that I wasn’t particularly impressed by Robbins teaching or lecturing or whatever it is you call what he’s doing.  He does seem to give out some decent advice here or there but his overall message seems to range from obvious statements that any therapist could give to complete gibberish that mostly seems to over-complicate fairly simple pieces of advice so as to make people think they’re paying for much more profound lessons than they actually are.

I don’t know that the guy is a total con artist as there probably are some weak willed people who will benefit from this sort of thing and if they can do it with one $5000 seminar that might ultimately be cheaper than years of therapy, but towards the end of the film its revealed that a decent number of the people in these crowds have actually been to these seminars multiple times, which both suggests that this doesn’t work in the first place and that these “breakthroughs” are not all that useful in the first place.  Ultimately I feel like what I’m watching is a secularized religious gathering, Robbins basically seems to be using the same manipulative tactics as some kind of televangelist and the semi-cultlike extent to which these people seem to depend on him is kind of disturbing.  As for Berlinger’s filmmaking; he does a pretty good job of keeping his distance and concealing his intentions, but he tips his and in the film’s last ten to fifteen minutes when he films Robbins’ commencement speech for the seminar with the utmost sincerity, going so far as to intercut clips of the island and happy people as Robbins gives a feel good lecture with the most minimal of substance to it.  Clearly Berlinger has drunk the kool-aid of all this to some extent.  However, whether he intended it or not the film did give me a lot more to think about than most documentaries and it’s always nice to have such a good opportunity to exercise my critical thinking skills.

***1/2 out of Five

Zootopia (8/3/2016)

Animated films rarely live up to their hype for me but Zootopia is about as close as one has come for quite a while.  On a basic aesthetic level this is one of the better uses of anthropomorphic talking animals that I can recall seeing (with the possible exception of the decidedly less family friendly BoJack Horseman).  The film chooses interesting animal avatars for each of its characters and does a pretty good job of hiding some of the obvious questions that this animal world would seem to bring up (like what the predatory animals eat now that they’ve given up their hunter ways).  The movie does a really serviceable job of making the characters interact in ways that do feel like legitimate (albeit more PG) interactions between modern adult characters and does a pretty damn good imitation of real buddy cop movies.  The animation is also pretty strong.  Those eyes on the rabbit look really good and the film does a pretty good job of making this wacky world filled with animal-people of various sizes interacting in ways that seem interestingly functional and plausible.  There are a couple of stupid moments like a corny Godfather parody in the middle of the film and I kind of hated the film’s theme song, which wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie didn’t lean into it so much especially at the end, but that is still ultimately a minor quibble.

Of course the thing that really makes the film stand out is its interest in relevant topics like race relations, transcending the prejudices directed at you, and identifying one’s own prejudices.  Most family movies end with some pabulum along the lines of “you can be anything you want to be” or “we’re all the same deep down” but this movie actually seems interested in working towards a message like that rather than wedging it in at the end as if to meet some kind of educational content quota.  Now I don’t want to oversell this too much because, when compared to the better live action dramas a lot of this thematic messaging is still pretty broad and simplistic but in the middle of Disney animated movie it does seem pretty bold.  I also like that this isn’t trying to be a perfect 1 to 1 allegory to the human world.  For instance, depending how you look at it the predators in the film could be seen as allegories to either the white people (former power holders who have “evolved” out of their oppressive ways) or the black people (minorities that are wrongly seen as violent and dangerous by the public).  The movie never really comes up with a terribly profound conclusion about any of these issues, but I have to admire the attempt.  This is about as good as I can ever expect a family movie about talking animals to ever be.

**** out of Five

High-Rise (8/7/2016)

High-Rise was often described as “Snowpiercer but in a building instead of on a train” which is a pretty unavoidable comparison.  Both are about contained environments segmented into different class sections and both devolve into chaos because of it.  The difference is that High-Rise is a bit less science fictiony and action based and a bit more nuanced, possibly to its detriment.  I had thought that Snowpiercer was a bit broad and on-the-nose in its allegory but at least you understood in no uncertain terms why the have-nots in the back of the train would want to violently revolt against the haves in the front.  Here on the other hand the middle class people who are causing all this trouble seem to be vastly over-reacting to slights that seem kind of petty in the grand scheme of things.  The movie doesn’t do nearly enough to establish that these seemingly fairly comfortable “lower level” people actually had legitimate grievances and that makes pretty much everything that comes afterwards feel really strange because of it.  Another advantage that Snowpiercer has over this is that it establishes that the outside world is a frozen hellscape, making it logical that the people would have to fight it out on the train, here we’re left to assume that the outside world is fairly hospitable and this begs the question as to why these people don’t just leave when the going gets tough.  Ben Wheatley is of course a skilled filmmaker and he certainly shoots his scenes well and manages to keep some interest throughout, but his allegory doesn’t hold together and his characters are uninteresting, making the movie as a whole kind of a waste.

** out of Five

Finding Dory(7/16/2016)

As longtime readers will know, my relationship to the Pixar Animation Studio is… complicated.  I ignored them for years, much as I ignored family films of all varieties, until the overwhelming critical acclaim finally wore me down.  Finally in early 2011 I broke down and watched all the Pixar movies for the first time and wrote about the experience in a series of blog posts.  Long story short, the movies weren’t really for me and I wouldn’t go along with some of the more over the top praise for them, they were certainly well made movies for what they were and I found some things to enjoy in them.  Since then I’ve kept up with their output as they’ve come out on Blu-Ray for academic reasons, but until now I’ve never taken the step of seeing one of their movies in theaters and writing a full review.  So why now?  Well, it certainly wasn’t because Finding Dory seemed like all that promising of a project to me.  Of the old Pixar movies I watched back in 2011 Finding Nemo was not one of my favorites and Pixar’s non-Toy Story sequels have generally not been great.  Also, while Finding Dory has definitely been very well liked by critics it certainly hasn’t received the rapturous reception of Inside/Out.  The rather unglamorous answer is that, unlike other Pixar movies, Finding Dory has come out during a very slow period in the release schedule and with nothing better to see it seemed to me that keeping up with the discussion around the latest Pixar release seemed like the best option.

This sequel, while made over a decade later, is set a year after the events of the original Finding Nemo.  Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) have settled back down in their ocean home but have maintained a close friendship with their memory challenged companion Dory (Ellen DeGeneres).  One day after a convenient bonk on the head Dory suddenly has a memory from her childhood of her parents.  It’s vague but it’s enough for her to know she should be looking in Morro Bay California, which is on the other side of the Pacific from her current Australian digs.  Dory wants to seek them out and Marlin, realizing that he owes her one, reluctantly agrees to go with her there and after they hitch a ride on the turtles from the first movie they discover that her parents actually live inside of a giant Seaworld-like aquarium called the Marine Life Institute.  Soon Dory and Nemo are split up and are desperately searching through this rather large but interconnected institute to try to find these missing parents and escape before it’s too late.

A big part of why I wasn’t too wild about the original Finding Nemo was because I thought the character of Dory was really really annoying.  In fact my exact words were “what really irritated me about Dory was that every time I was getting into Marlin’s story and wanting him to succeed he would be hindered by Dory’s comic relief, though paradoxically I was just as if not more annoyed whenever she somehow managed to help Marlin’s quest through some kind of wacky accident.”  I can’t say that the character has been changed too dramatically but her crazy memory problem has been framed in a different way that does make it more palatable.  Most notably her “condition,” which mostly came off like a comic relief driven eccentricity in the first movie feels more like an allegory for a legitimate mental illness this time around.  This puts you the viewer in an odd position because every time you wish someone would yell “Dory there you go ruining everything again” or “Dory will you just shut up for one fucking second and let someone explain something to you” at her you have to stop yourself from thinking such things because it’s kind of a dick move to yell at a “special needs” person whose trying their best.

Fortunately Pixar has my back on this vis-a-vie a new character named Hank the Octopus.  Hank is an octopus voiced by Ed O’Neil who has been living in the marine institute and is trying to find his way onto a truck going to the Cleveland aquarium, which he believes will finally allow him a life of peace and quiet after having had bad experiences both in the ocean and in a children’s exhibit.  He tags along with Dory because he thinks she can give him her transport tag which will get him on the truck but is a lot less likely than some of the other characters to put up with her shit and the movie really comes alive whenever he’s on screen both because of the way he’s animated and his general attitude.  In fact this movie seems particularly packed with quality side characters compared to other Disney/Pixar movies and is certainly better at that than the original Finding Nemo which was filled with nonsense like vegetarian sharks and whatnot.  If you look through this movie’s IMDB page you see a staggering number of celebrity voice cameos and very few of them seem like stunt castings and are all integrated quite well.  It should also go without saying that this is a huge visual upgrade from the 2003 original given the evolution in technology since then, and that’s certainly needed because that movie is really starting to show its age, but I feel like beyond that there just a lot more ambition in the way the sequences are planned and choreographed here.

Let’s look back at the last really well received Pixar movie, Inside/Out.  That was a movie with a really clever premise, but I thought its adventure format was kind of weak and I had some philosophical differences with it that I couldn’t overlook.  Finding Dory clearly has a less creative premise than Inside/Out what with it not taking place in someone’s head and being a sequel to boot.  However, I think it works a lot better as an adventure narrative than that movie which would seem to make up for that… however, once again I’m held back form fully endorsing the movie by some philosophical differences with the movie’s message.  For one thing, I think the movie kind of fails Hank the Octopus.  Hank is a guy who knows what he wants, namely to not be in the ocean and to “get his,” and the movie ends up doing nothing but judge him for this.  But that’s kind of a minor quibble.  The bigger problem is the movie’s interest in a sort of clash in problem solving styles between Marlin and Dory.  Marlin plans out his every move and avoids taking unnecessary risks while Dory impulsively rushes into everything, “wings it” at every turn, and never gives up on an adventure once she’s found a goal.  Over the course of the movie Marlin is forced to not just respect Dory’s approach but to embrace it.  The movie actively holds up “what would Dory do” at every turn as the superior way of doing things in pretty much every situation and that seems ridiculous to me.  Yeah, impulsively doing whatever your ID tells you works fine if you live in a Disney movie like this where everything almost magically just works out for you but in the real world that is not how anyone should be encouraged to live their life.

Recently I’ve been looking back at some of the old movies that Disney made during its “Golden Age” and I’ve got to say, the experience has mostly been giving me a renewed appreciation for Pixar.  Don’t get me wrong, those classics had some beautiful animation and they did a lot of pioneering stuff, but man oh man were they simplistic and prone to doing some kind of lazy stuff.  For whatever their merits a lot of those “classics” make this look like The Godfather by comparison.  As for its merit when compared to the rest of Pixar’s work, I think it holds its own pretty well against a lot of them.  It’s definitely better than Finding Nemo and while I know I’m in the minority about this I think I might have liked it a little better overall than Inside Out even if I probably respect it less conceptually.  Either way it’s certainly the work of the good Pixar rather than the iffier Monsters Univerisy/Cars 2 Pixar that was looking like a shadow of its former self, possibly because it’s being overseen by Andrew Stanton, who is one of their OGs.  If it had just broken a little more ground gotten its messaging more in line I might have gone so far as to say it was one of their best efforts.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s