Home Video Round-Up 6/20/2015:

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (3/30/2015)

3-30-2015GoingClear

I’ve long been fascinated and horrified by the phenomenon that is The Church of Scientology, so fascinated in fact that I read Lawrence Wright’s Scientology expose “Going Clear” a couple of years ago.  Now Alex Gibney has made this book into a documentary and, well, my main reaction is to just say “been there done that.”  It’s weird, when you see a film adaptation of a novel there’s always something new to experience in seeing how it’s adapted but the same isn’t always true of watching a non-fiction book get turned into a documentary.  I basically knew all of the information presented here from having read the book and didn’t really get a whole lot from seeing it re-presented here in less detail.  If the film did something with the adaptation to really do something different or at least present the information in a particularly compelling way that wouldn’t be a real problem but I don’t really think it does.  Gibney’s documentaries are rarely “bad” exactly, they’re all very professionally made prodects that present information efficiently but there’s nothing particularly artful about them and I increasingly feel like they’re being made on an assembly line.  Of course this might have all been a lot more illuminating to me if I hadn’t read up on the topic beforehand, so to less informed audiences this might work a lot better than it did with me.

*** out of four

Girlhood (6/13/2015)

First thing’s first, ignore the dumb English language title.  The film’s original title was “Bande de Filles,” which translates to something along the line of “Gang of Girls.”  I get why they’d want to change that to something that sounds a little less awkward but giving it a title that seems to be exploiting the success of anther movie that has nothing to do with it was not the right way to do that.  The film is sort of a social realist portrait of a Black Parisian girl who drops out of school and joins a “gang” of street girls.  It’s the kind of slice of life movie you expect to see coming out of the United Kingdom more often than France and it generally seems more interested in painting a picture of a certain socio-economic class than it is in really telling a story or really developing a character study.  If that’s what you’re looking for the film will mostly satisfy, if you want a little more to grab onto this may seem a little slight to you.  I was mostly pleased by the film’s craft elements and I would like to see what director Céline Sciamma is capable of when working in a slightly different format.

*** out of Four

6-13-2015Girlhoood

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (5/11/2015)

5-11-2015KurtCobainMontageofHeck There have been a number of documentaries made about Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana but I think this is the first one that’s been made with the cooperation of Cobain’s family.  Normally that would be a red flag, estates are usually controlling and not particularly artful, but they seem to have made the right choice this time, in part because they and the director seem of have the same fascinating goal in mind.  This is not really a movie about Kurt Cobain the rock star and it certainly isn’t really a movie about Nirvana or their music.  It doesn’t focus on the most famous moments in Cobain’s life or over-explain any biographical detail and sort of expects you to know the broad strokes of this story coming in.  Instead what it sets out to do is act as a sort of portrait of Cobain’s often misunderstood personality.  In the wake of his suicide the world has done a lot to turn Cobain into a tortured martyr, a sort of Jim Morrison for the 90s who was a tortured poet that was too pure for this world.  His seemingly angry and discordant music hasn’t done much to dissuade the public from this impression so what director Brett Morgan has tried to do is use diary entries, home movies, and artwork in order to paint a more complex picture.

Among the biggest revelations is that Kurt Cobain was kind of a goofball who wasn’t above joking around and being a little silly.  The evidence of this has always been there but people have always kind of ignored it.  It’s all there in the film’s title, which was taken from a mix-tape/art project that Cobain made at one point.  It makes sense for the movie because the documentary does take the form of a montage of sorts and when Cobain’s heroin addiction comes into the story it does become rather… ugh… hecky, but why the minced oath?  Because Cobain was a silly guy, that’s why.  It’s the dimension that the younger bands that would follow Cobain’s influence missed out on, they would have missed the irony and just called their projects “Montage of Hell.”  This isn’t to say that the film depicts Cobains life as completely lighthearted, he was a suicidal drug addict after all, but it does a great job of getting away from the uninformed narratives that have built the guy’s legacy.  It helps that Morgan is once of the best visual stylists working in documentary.  He knows exactly how to bring archival footage and ephemera to life on the screen.  Occasionally he goes too far with this, I certainly could have done without the bits of animation he uses a few times here even if it does at least look better than the grotesque recreations he used in the film Chicago 10, but for the most part he gets it right and makes a much more fascinating film than I would have expected from an HBO doc about a dead rocker.

***1/2 out of Four

Blackhat (6/20/2015)

This movie got some really bad buzz when it was unceremoniously dumped in January so I was braced for a movie with problems, but I still held out hope.  I thought, this was directed by Michael Mann, how bad could it be.  Pretty damn bad it turns out, and I’m pretty curious about what went wrong.  Mann has some blemishes on this record (notably Miami Vice) but he seemed to be in pretty good form with his last film Public Enemies but something seems to have happened to him in the rather lengthy wait between that film and this follow-up because this movie is just a mess.  In the couple of actions scenes here there are maybe a few flashes of the Michael Mann action film we wanted to see here and there in but the movie itself is pretty much a failure on every other level.  Mann’s digital photography driven style has not evolved at all since we last saw it and its novelty has worn off significantly in the decade since it was first implemented.  What’s more the film’s story is completely misbegotten.  It has absolutely nothing interesting to say about hackers and Chris Hemsworth is woefully miscast.  Honestly I’m having some trouble to find anything nice to say about this one, it’s really just an incredibly disappointing failure from a master filmmaker.

*1/2 out of Four

6-20-2015Blackhat

Hot Girls Wanted (6/8/2015)

6-8-2015HotGirlsWanted Reed Hastings has been quoted saying his goal is to have Netflix become HBO before HBO can become Netflix and he has indeed been following a lot of HBO’s old moves.  So perhaps it should not be surprising that the latest Netflix exclusive documentary, Hot Girls Wanted, felt so much like something HBO would have broadcast in the bad old days.  Some context for those too young to remember, way back when HBO had a series of documentaries called “America Undercover.”  Some of the movies made under this rather loose brand-name turned into legit docs but the vast majority of them were either sensationalistic nonsense or were simply an excuse to air softcore porn while still seeming slightly classier than Cinemax.  Titles aired in this programing slot included such hard hitting exposés as High on Crack Street, Pimps Up Hos Down, Hookers at the Point, Strippers: The Naked Stages, and of course Taxicab ConfessionsHot Girls Wanted, which focuses on the world of amateur porn, kind of remided me a lot of that series.  To its credit, it doesn’t go out of its way to show nudity the way some of the aforementioned “documentaries” did and I do think it was probably made with less cynical intentions but I do get a similar whiff of exploitation out of it just the same.

The film’s subjects are called “amateur porn” actors, but they actually are paid for their services and are not technically amateurs.  A more accurate label would probably be “novice porn stars” or something because they are notably very young 18-19 year olds, a fact that the film seems to find rather shocking.  The movie claims that this is some kind of new low for pornography but the idea of people showing up in porn at this age isn’t exactly new (the Traci Lords incident certainly comes to mind).  I don’t know, the movie really wants the viewer to be mad about what they’re seeing but the film’s subjects actually don’t seem to be doing all that badly for themselves.  You certainly get the idea that there’s a certain amount of manipulation going on to get them where they are and they also sound like they’re being underpaid, which isn’t cool, but they don’t act like they’re all that bothered about the fact that they’re starring in porn.  Ultimately the filmmakers seem a lot more bothered by what’s going on than the supposed victims and barring any real relevations all the filmmakers can really do is sort of follow around these “broken women” and sort of gawk at their depravity.  Look, I’m not immune to a little sleazy exploitation and I did find myself somewhat interested in the girls the film was following despite the moralizing on the part of the film they were in.

**1/2 out of Four 

Tomorrowland(6/7/2015)

6-7-2015Tomorrowland

I could have sworn J.J. Abrams had something to do with this.  Looking at IMDB after the fact I realize he does not have so much as a credit on it, but I still find it hard to believe.  It’s not just because he previously worked with both director Brad Bird (on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and co-writer Damon Lindelof (on the show “Lost”), rather it’s because of the movie’s advertising campaign.  In its run-up Tomorrowland had a very Abrams-esque advertising campaign in that, rather than announcing a press conference for every last element of the movie in an attempt to get the movie in front of people for days on end, the campaign tried to keep every last detail save for a few tantalizing images a secret in order to give it an intriguing aura of mystery.  As a movie viewer I’m inclined to love this approach, I hate coming out of a movie feeling like I’d already seen it because of an overly pushy ad campaign that gave away everything before the movie came out.  However, I’ve found that more often than not this “mystery box” approach to film publicly seems to backfire.  Part of the problem may simply be that the masses want to know what they’re getting themselves into with any given movie, but the bigger problem is that these campaigns invite audiences to imagine a movie in their heads which almost always ends up being a lot grander than the movies that actually get made.  Still, even without the mysterybox campaign Tomorrowland looked like a hell of a project with its hotshot director and cool premise, and now that it’s here it can finally be a mere movie rather than an abstract bundle of promise.

The film is set mostly in the present and mainly focuses on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a sixteen year old with a penchant for technology and a strong set of optimistic beliefs.  As her story starts she’s rather angry that NASA is planning to dismantle the Cape Canaveral launch site, which offends her both as an admirer of space travel and as the daughter of a NASA engineer.  This vandalism eventually lands her in jail and shortly after she’s bailed out she stumbles upon a seemingly magical pin that give her visions of a strange futuristic city.  Eventually this pin seems to run out of power, leading her to go on something of a quest to find answers about this strange place where it seems the world’s brightest minds have come together to work unimpeded by red tape and naysayers.  Along the way she meets a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that wants to help lead her there as well as an aging former inhabitant named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has become embittered by his experiences in this city of tomorrow and seems to know about some sort of massive threat that has emanated from it.

Tomorrowland, the place not the movie, is a pretty intriguing idea.  The glimpses that we do get of this titular location (which is sort of like Columbia from “Bioshock Infinite” but more futuristic and less racist) are visually rich and generally intriguing.  The thing is, the movie does not really spend a lot of time in Tomorrowland, nor does it go into detail about what it’s like as a society.  The basic concept, that human society would be far more advanced if scientists didn’t have to contend with red tape is kind of a fucked up idea if you think about it too long.  At best it’s a kind of Randian argument in favor of deregulation, at worst it almost seems like the kind of philosophy that Josef Mengele could get behind.  Also it’s kind of a mystery why these scientists are inventing all this fun shit only to stow it away from the rest of us.  But I don’t think the movie is really all that concerned about scientists being stifled by regulation so much as a general lack of vision on the part of society.  The film barters in the same “gee wiz” enthusiasm for science and progress that fueled Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year and like that film it kind of suffers from a case of maybe trying a little too hard to be a sort of infomercial for the STEM fields.

It’s not entirely clear how old the character of Casey Newton is supposed to be.  She’s of driving age, so I guess she must be sixteen or seventeen, but she’s played by a twenty five year old actress and all too often seems to be written like she was originally supposed to be thirteen or fourteen.  The character actually comes off pretty well on screen, which I largely attribute to the efforts of Britt Robertson, but on the page it’s kind of an odd character.  She’s almost immediately established as an optimist, a dreamer, and a science wiz with an emphasis on the former two roles much more than the last one.  I’m pretty sure that the character is supposed to be some kind of science and engineering savant but the film very rarely actually has her doing anything scientific.  This actually isn’t too far out of line with the movie’s general approach to science, which is the opposite of Thomas Edison’s approach in that it seems to think that genius is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration.

It’s established at the end of the film (Spoilers, I guess) that what ails the world is pessimism.  In fact it’s established, via an incredibly on the nose monolog, that the problem ailing the world is that people are far too pessimistic and that we’ve lost the optimistic spirit of the sixties.  Popular culture itself is itself indicted for telling stories that are a little too Mad Max and not enough Star Trek.  Frankly I think this logic is flawed both because it endows fiction with way more power than it actually has (the cheerleaders seldom have any real influence over which team wins) and secondly just for being generally inaccurate about the history of science fiction.  Apocalyptic sci-fi visions were not, contrary to popular belief, invented the day Blade Runner came out.  There was a strong strain of nuclear paranoia and scientific pessimism that ran through the science fiction all through the age of the space race.  The fact that cinema viewers in 1968 witnessed Charlton Heston stumbling upon a rusted and destroyed Statue of Liberty in the middle of a desolate wasteland that used to be New York didn’t seem to do anything to hinder the moon landing one year later.   Of course these movies kind of had a good reason to be skeptical of unrestrained scientific advancement what with all the nuclear bombs and polluting automobiles and to dismiss these cautionary tales as counterproductive is maybe to miss the point.

Long story short, the science fiction in this movie is dumb, instead you’re probably better off ignoring that as much as possible in order to simply enjoy the movie as a sort of Spielbergian adventure movie and on that level the movie succeeds more often than it fails.  I wasn’t a huge fan of Brad Bird’s first live action effort, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (a movie which was basically three pretty decent set-pieces loosely tied together by a whole lot of nothing) in part because it didn’t really establish Bird as the kind of unique visual stylist that that series needed, but this movie feels a lot more like a natural extension of his animated work.  The guy seems to have a very good grasp of the whimsical tone the film needs and also creates some really fun action scenes out of the film’s creative science fiction equipment.  Also, the dude’s shot compositions are fucking luscious.

Despite the fact that it has some rather gaping problems Tomorrowland isn’t a particularly easy movie to dislike.  On paper it has everything we all keep asking Hollywood to give us what with it being an original IP with a distinctive visual style and a message beyond “hey isn’t this action awesome.”  There’s definitely some good stuff in the movie and as clumsy as its message is I guess I did sort of appreciate that it was trying to say something when all too often this kind of movie actively says nothing.  In fact I was pretty much ready to give the movie a light pass when I left the theater, but the more I think about the movie the less I can really justify supporting it.  This is not a good movie, it does too much wrong and ultimately it’s a swing and a miss.  However, this is not the kind of bad movie that people should be mad at, it’s a noble effort one that might work better for children than for adults and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turns out to be something of a cult film amongst a certain generation of viewers.

**1/2 out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Tangled/Frozen

Tangled-Frozen

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

It’s interesting, at this point I’ve watched and analyzed over 35 movies for this essay series and my previous series focusing on Pixar and yet there’s a certain mouse in the room I haven’t addressed: Disney.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, I guess you could count all of those if you wanted but the mouse house has been pretty adamant about treating that as a separate brand.  Also, Time Burton’s Frankenweenie was technically a Disney release but I think everyone can agree that doesn’t really count either.  So why have I avoided the mainline Disney movies in this little survey of contemporary family flicks?  Same reason everyone else has, the movies they put out in the aughts are by all accounts sub-par efforts unworthy of most people’s attention.  Maybe it was because they didn’t want to distract from the Pixar cash-cow, maybe it was because they just couldn’t adjust to CGI animation but for whatever reason Disney followed up their 90s renaissance with what is easily their worst era since the days of Oliver and Company.  It was a decade that gave us disasters like Home on the Range, Meet the Robinsons, and Brother Bear.  These were movies that didn’t even have the dignity to be memorable disasters, they were just sort of there, and they certainly couldn’t compete with what Pixar and Dreamworks were putting out.

Then something changed in the 20-teens.   It didn’t happen overnight exactly but as Pixar has waned Disney proper seems to have stepped up.  There are probably a lot of reasons for this, the most obvious one seems to be that John Lasseter took over as a creative chief after Pixar was formally bought in 2006 and that it took a little while for his input to manifest itself in the form of actual films.  Lasseter seemed to have a handful of different ideas of how to restore Disney to its former glory and the first and perhaps most obvious was a sort of back to basics return to fairy tale adaptations.  It’s a decision that was such a no-brainer that I’m not sure why it wasn’t done sooner.  In the decade since Mulan was released in 1998 Disney had turned the female characters in their back catalog into a unified marketing brand dubbed the “Disney Princesses,” a canny business decision that boosted sales at the Disney Consumer Products division from $300 million in 2001 to $3 billion by 2006 and it was only logical that they would want to play into that success.  Really though, it doesn’t take crassly corporate reasons like that to see why making more princess movies would be a good idea.  The simple fact  is that the studio had had clear success with fairy tale movies in the past and had found nothing by failure by moving away from them.

There was one major hurdle though: gender politics.  Disney has always been in a under intense scrutiny because of their position as a media empire believed to have major influence over young people and has long been mired in the middle of culture wars.  In the last fifteen years there seems to have been more debate about “Disney Princesses” than about Net Neutrality, the Patriot Act, and the Darfur crisis combined.  As such, most of the talk about movies like Tangled, Frozen, and Pixar’s Brave have had less to do with the actual films than whether or not their protagonists are good role models for girls.  Personally, I don’t care too much.  I’m not going to completely ignore the gender issues going into these movies (the filmmakers certainly haven’t) but it’s worth remembering that my goals in analyzing movies for this essay series has never been to judge how the movies will work for their “intended audience” and it definitely hasn’t been to decide if these movies are going to mold young people’s self esteem.  This series has always been about my own personal selfish response to these movies, to put them to the test and see whether they’re actually “for everybody.”

Tangled (2010)

I don’t like to think back to this stage in my life but when I was working my way through college I had a soul-sucking job at a big box retailer which will remain nameless (it rhymed with Parget).  The you tend to notice when you have a job like that is how much of a bubble you live in, especially when you hear your co-workers talking about pop culture in the break room.  It certainly wasn’t lost on me that not everyone was into the kind of movies I liked, but it wasn’t until I worked at that place that I came to realize how many people’s viewing habits were completely subservient to what their children and in some cases grandchildren were into.  Case in point, there was a middle aged woman who worked in that place (she was a high ranking employee actually, the head of HR on site) and anytime anyone in the breakroom brought up the topic of movies she’s suddenly say “ooh, have you seen Tangled?  My grandchildren love it!” often seeming oblivious to the fact that twenty-something childless employee she was talking to maybe didn’t have a reason to be interested in such things.  I always secretly rolled my eyes when I heard her say this, it just seemed like such a lame thing to get that enthusiastic over and not just because it seemed odd for an adult to default to a Disney movie as an exemplar of fine cinema.  This particular Disney movie just sounded particularly… un-noteworthy.  It had a lame title and… that’s about all I knew about it.  I was getting some decent reviews but it certainly wasn’t getting the Pixar treatment and it didn’t even get the often perfunctory Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars.

At first glance the film just seems like yet another in a long line of fairy tale adaptations by Disney, but if you think about it that’s actually kind of unusual.  As heavily associated with fairy tales as Disney is, it’s interesting that before they made Tangled they’d done a pretty admirable job of not going back to that well for the longest time.  In fact, they hadn’t made a movie based on a traditional European fairy tale since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.  In the time since then they certainly made some movies adapted from non-European folk tales (Aladdin, Mulan), as well as certain European novels (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Planet), and a handful of other sources like Greek mythology (Hercules) and even historical stories (Pocahontas) but never a regular-ass prince charming saves a motherfucking damsel fairy tale.  In fact, for most of the movies they made during their not so beloved stretch during the 2000s had abandoned source material altogether in favor of telling original stories, usually to less than stellar ends.  So, with Tangled they decided to take a back-to-basics approach and adapt the German fairy tale of Rapunzel.  Kind of an odd choice of story given that much of the original Rapunzel story is set at a single tower, and that the original Grimm version involves such pleasantries as unplanned pregnancy and eye gouging, but this adaptation has been expanded with extra adventure elements and as is often the case with Disney movies is quite different from the folklore.

Going into this I expected it to be a very conscious attempt to recreate the magic of those Disney Renaissance movies and while there is some of that going on here there is a key difference: irreverence.  Now I may be completely misremembering those older Disney movies but I remember them being fairly sincere efforts that played things straight more often than they didn’t.  There was certainly comic relief in those movies, but I feel like it was mostly contained to certain silly side characters like Iago the parrot or Pumbaa and Timon.  These were annoying characters to be sure, but they were just individual characters.  I might just be misremembering this and some of the stuff in those movies might have just felt less silly to me as a child than it would if I was watching the movies today, but that is the impression I’m left with.  This movie on the other hand seems to bend over backwards in order to produce a dumb laugh ever ten seconds.  Some of this was done through dedicated comedic characters like Rapunzel’s lizard, a seemingly sentient police horse, and a gang of thugs led by a ruffian who really just wants to be a concert pianist.  The humor isn’t just contained to those characters though; the whole movie seems to be filled with silliness, including a number of scenes where the movie plays with editing in order to get laughs. It doesn’t quite descend into Shrek levels of tomfoolery but I really disliked these comedic elements, which were more stupid than funny and which really robbed the movie of the classical feel and epic sweep that they should have been going for and kind of cheapens the whole experience.

An interesting side note about the film is that it had a somewhat troubled production which ended up going way over-budget.  The movie is thought to have cost over $260 million, which would make it the second most expensive movie ever made up to that date (fifth most expensive of all time today) and to this date the most expensive animated film ever made.  To put that in perspective, Brave only cost $185 million and freakin’ Avatar only cost $237 million.  I find this fact kind of staggering if only because the film’s animation mostly just looks kind of average.  The character models have the same basic style and fidelity of most CGI animated films and the backgrounds don’t look that much different than most medieval set animated flicks.  The one standout effect that must have cost all that money was Rapunzel’s hair, which does indeed look pretty good.  In fact this hair effect is one of the more memorable aspects of the film beyond its technical fidelity in that it’s simply an interesting image even though the movie frequently cheats and makes it shorter or longer depending on the needs of a given scene.  The hair tech in Pixar’s Brave was probably better, but that movie had an extra two years to develop said hair tech so I guess that’s to be expected.

Speaking of Brave, watching this has maybe given me a better appreciation for that movie and perhaps for the Pixar approach in general.  At the very least that studio seems to know how to integrate humor in a slightly more dignified way and it also doesn’t feel some need to integrate musical numbers.  This film is a full-on Disney musical, which I believe does differentiate it from most of what they were making in the 2000s and likens it more to the Disney Renaissance material.  The film’s music was written by Alan Menken, who did the music for a number of famous Disney movies in the past, with lyrics by the frequent Andrew Lloyd Weber collaborator Glen Slater.  That would seem like a pretty heavy hitting team for this sort of thing but they really didn’t seem to weave that much gold out of it. Admitedly, I’m not much of a fan of this kind of broadway style music in general but I do know a memorable song when I hear it and none of this stuff is memorable in the way that previous Disney showstoppers like “Can You See the Love Tonight” or “A Whole New World” have been.  The one song that did sort of stand out was the song “Mother Knows Best,” and while I know next to nothing about Broadway music even I can tell that that song is a blatant ripoff of the song “Master of the House” from “Les Misérables.”

But perhaps I’ve gotten into the weeds too quickly, let’s step back and take a look at the story itself.  Like the original fairy tale, this is a story about a princess being held captive by a witch named Mother Gothel who needs the princess’ magic hair in order to keep her from aging.  The exact rules of how this magic works are poorly explained and not logically consistent throughout the movie, but we’ll get back to that later.  There is a kernel of a good idea in this setup because Gothel keeps Rapunzel in the tower not through force but through manipulation and claims that the outside world is too dangerous.  I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a metaphor for the parental fear of the empty nest, but that would have been a lot more interesting if it felt for a minute like Gothel actually believed some of her bullshit and had actually formed some kind of real bond with Rapunzel but instead her motivations are almost entirely selfish and she’s a pretty unambiguously villainous.  The whole concept of parents refusing to allow their children to leave a single building was explored much better that same year by Yorgos Lanthimos Dogtooth, and in the realm of children’s film parental over-protection was also addressed better in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

The film also really begins to fall apart in its final thirty or forty minutes or so when its many logical leaps come back to bite it in the ass.  The fact that Rapunzel’s birthday is a big clue about her identity is a little ridiculous to begin with (why the hell would Gothel let Rapunzel know her real birthday if the king and queen are going to use it to release lanterns?) but the way she uses some sort of subliminal sun symbol to firmly realize her identity is simply ridiculous.  The way she’s also able to resurrect her dead soon to be boyfriend with a single tear post magical hair cutting is also completely out of nowhere and inconsistent with everything we’ve learned about this magic so far.  Finally, it’s not clear at all how Rapunzel is able to so easily be re-united with her parents at the end who don’t seem to do much of anything in order to verify her identity.

But I’m getting lost in the weeds again, let’s take another step back and look at the characters.  Despite her questionable captive keeping abilities I would say that Mother Gothel is a pretty decent twist on the evil stepmom character given that she’s manipulative rather than openly nasty. I also sort of see where they were going by making the main male protagonist a roguish thief rather than a valiant prince but I don’t really think they go far enough with it.  This guy is so tame and has had so many edges removed that it’s hard to really think of him as having ever been a criminal at all and he may as well have been a prince charming the whole time.  Had he actually had some real danger to him at all that would have made his interactions with Rapunzel a lot more interesting.  Of course the main thing that many commentators are going to be interested in is the main character and whether or not she qualifies as a Strong Female Character™.  The short answer is: not as much as the feminists want her to be but moreso than the story really merits.  The film does go out of its way to give Rapunzel a lot of spunk and to not just make her a helpless character that needs to be saved over and over… but I’m not exactly sure if that makes a lot of sense for a character that’s been stuck in a damn tower for eighteen years.  If she was such a Strong Female Character™ this whole time why did she stay in that tower for so long?  I get the desire to put stronger women in these movies but there seems to be a certain degree of helplessness baked into this character’s DNA and the attempts that Disney makes to fit this square object into a round hole just kind of come off perfunctory and half-assed.

So, for the most part I’d say that Disney kind of stumbled coming out of the gate in trying to bring their patented Princess format to the Digital age, at least from an artistic point of view.  With the general public the film seemed to be liked but not loved.  Granted, the movie did make $591 million dollars worldwide and that’s a lot of money any way you cut it and does qualify as a hit but compared to the $1 Billion plus that Toy Story 3 made that year it seemed a lot less impressive and it was also outgrossed by Shrek Forever After in the world market that year and domestically by How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me.  In short the movie just kind of seemed like another fairly successful family movie that earned moderately respectable reviews and got an Oscar nomination for a song.  What we didn’t know was that this was planting a seed for a Disney comeback that would grow into a major hit a few years later just as Pixar was about to start showing signs of weakness.

Frozen (2013)

Moderate hit though it may have been, Tangled did not leave much of a cultural impression.  That is most certainly not the case with Disney’s next princess movie: Frozen.  Critically the movie was really well liked but never quite hit Pixar levels of affection.  It wasn’t a top ten list fixture come year end and there weren’t too many people demanding that it become a Best Picture nominee, but boy oh boy did the public go for it.  The movie made over 1.2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office making it the fifth highest grossing movie of all time by the time its theatrical run finished.  Of course Iron Man 3 made almost as much money and even outgrossed it domestically, but Frozen clearly left the much bigger cultural impression than it or any other movie that year.  For proof you need not look any further than the fact that you could not go anywhere without having the song “Let it Go” shoved in your face.  The song managed to reach the top five on the Billboard charts despite not getting any radio airplay outside of children’s music stations and propelled the film’s soundtrack to go Quadruple platinum (no easy feat given the state of album sales).  The bigger testament to the song’s immese popularity though is the sheer number of interpretations and parodies were inundated with that year.  We saw versions of the song about driving in inclement weather, about the polar vortex, about taking final exams, about Game of Thrones, about how there are too many “Let if Go” parodies… almost always sung by people with none of Idina Menzel’s vocal abilities and with an endless craving to get attention by jumping on a pop culture fad.

Funny thing is, for all I heard about “Let it Go” I feel like I knew very little about the actual movie that it came from and wasn’t really sure what to expect out of it.  I wasn’t expecting much out of it and as the film started I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by what I was watching and by how successful the movie was at using its musical sequences to advance the story.  The first forty or so minutes of the film are actually quite good.  The film grabs the audience early on with a musical number called “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” that really effectively sets up the strained relationship between the main characters and sums up the passage of time much more interestingly than the narrated opening of Tangled did.  It also does a pretty good job of establishing an adult Anna as the film’s protagonist and actually finds a semi-believable if slightly satirical means of setting her up with a prince charming named Hans via a pretty well written song called “Love is an Open Door.”  This in turn leads to a fairly natural freakout by Elsa leading her to flee into the mountains, culminating in now iconic “Let it Go” scene.

That is a hell of a setup and minus a couple of forgivable family movie moments the movie more or less had me at that point.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the movie ever really lives up to the promise of its first third and quickly starts making some pretty big missteps from there.  Actually, I wonder if “Let it Go” itself is kind of the first misstep.  Honestly, I kind of liked the song better when I was hearing it out of context.  Idina Menzel certainly belts out the notes well on the song but she also doesn’t really sound much like Elsa while she’s singing it.  She no longer sounds as young as she does in the rest of the character and kind of seems to drop the voice.  She sounds less like Elsa the princess on the mountain and more like Idina the Broadway star in a soundstudio.  That’s a nitpick though, the bigger issue is that the film itself almost seems to be intimidated by the song and almost concedes that it’s peaked early.  Even though there’s another hour left of movie there are really only two more musical sequences after “Let it Go” and one of them is purely comedic (more on that stupid shit later).

The film’s losing steam at this point is hardly confined to the sudden downtick in musical numbers (that’s just a symptom).  The movie also really seems to rush this whole middle section.  One problem is that Elsa’s curse doesn’t really seem all that onerous.  The movie appears to be set in a facsimile of Scandanavia, a place that isn’t exactly unaccustomed to a little snow and having them stuck in a perpetual winter just doesn’t seem like it would be all that devastating, at least not for the incredibly short time that this curse seems to last.  I feel like the movie would have been a lot stronger if it had flash forwarded a couple years at that point so that the kingdom would be more desperate, the sisters would become more estranged, and Elsa would have more time to stew and go into isolated hermit mode up on the mountain.  This would have made the twist about Hans and his scheme impossible, but that whole sub-plot was misguided (for I’ll get into later) anyway, so that’s no big loss.  Instead we have Anna rushing right away on her own to find Elsa and talk her down from the mountain, even though as a princess she probably would have had the means to bring a whole host of guards and guides in order to make her journey less perilous.

Along the way she runs into a talking snowman named Olaf and… oh boy did I not like this character.  When I looked at Tangled I mentioned that my memory of previous Disney movies was that they often funneled all their comic relief into designated “comedy characters” like Pumbaa and Timon, and Olaf the snowman is certainly part of that tradition.  I also said that Tangled would have been better off if had contained its dumb joke to a single character rather than letting to pervade the whole film and I do still think that.  Frozen definitely benefits from the fact that it mostly restrains its silliness when dealing with the main characters, so if they absolutely had to put some stupid shit into this movie to entertain some of the dumber kids in the audience I guess I’m glad that Olaf is there to bear that burden but that doesn’t make him any less annoying and in some ways it’s actually worse because his antics feel so out of place.  What’s more, the character seems completely unnecessary outside of his role as a designated comic relief character.  He seems to add almost nothing to Anna’s journey to the castle and the pretty much just pick him up because the Disney execs knew that kids would enjoy his antics.

Then there’s the three-quarter twist that Hans has been a malevolent force the whole time.  This is a twist that is somehow both eminently predictable and also kind of disappointing when it happens.  The second that Anna and Hans “fall in love at first sight” I had a pretty strong hunch that he wasn’t all that he seemed, but I will give the movie credit: for a short brief moment it had me doubting that first impression.  In fact, during the scene where Hans leads his men into Elsa’s ice fortress and goes out of his way not to have them kill her on sight I even wrote down “wow, they aren’t going the clichéd route of making the first prince an asshole.”  Not ten minutes later they revealed that they were going to do just that and it was pretty disappointing.  What’s more, Hans proves to be a rather inept usurper and generally isn’t much of a threat to either of the Strong Female Characters™ that Disney has set him up against.  His scheme (to pretend to marry Anna before leaving her to die and then execute her sister) seems pretty convoluted and reliant on certain coincidences. That he reveals it in one of those movie scenes where villains explain their evil plans for no reason is forgivable, but the fact that he leaves Anna alive before going out and claiming she was dead makes no sense, and neither does the fact that the rest of her court just takes his word that they exchanged wedding vows when the goddamn throne is on the line.

When Hans finally does start simply going after Elsa with a sword at the end just doesn’t seem all that threatening, but really the bigger issue with that scene is the film’s rather jumbled take on the rules behind Elsa’s powers.  The film’s plot is based around a rather convoluted spell requiring Anna to lose her memory for some reason.  When put in this “frozen heart” spell Anna’s physical state seems to behave exactly the way the script requires it to, particularly when forces her to turn into ice at just the right moment to block Hans’ sword blow before it can fell Elsa.  Then she’s magically resurrected by love at the perfectly convenient moment, which is dumb firstly because it’s saccharine bullshit and secondly because it’s basically a deus ex machina that lacks internal logic and the fact that it seems to solve both Anna’s death and Elsa’s emotional trauma for no particular reason really seems like a big cheat.

Now, having said all of that, I actually don’t want to come off too negatively towards this film.  If nothing else this is a huge improvement over Tangled.  CGI animation technology noticeably improved in the three years between but more importantly the team making this clearly had more of a cinematic eye than the ones who made that previous Disney effort.  Tangled was a movie that was very comfortable being a mere cartoon, but Frozen clearly aspires to be more and you can tell by the “camera moves” and detailed “sets” and “costumes” that they want this to be something a bit more akin to a “Game of Thrones” style fantasy environment than the more fairy tale-ish world of Tangled.  The film also has a notably restrained voice cast with Kristen Bell as the only celebrity voice in the whole film, a stark contrast to the M.O. of Dreamworks and even Pixar to some extent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not mad at the film so much as I’m disappointed.  There seems to be some special talent being put into the film and that first third of the film really seemed to be setting up something and I could see this rather dark story beneath the surface that the movie seems to be running away from as fast as it could.  If the movie hadn’t gotten bogged down by stupidity like talking snowmen, singing trolls, and lame twists it really could have been something.  As it is, it’s still a pretty good movie for what it is and I do think it more or less got the reception it deserved.  If people had been giving it the Pixar “oh my god, this thing must win Oscars!!!” treatment I would have balked but it does fit pretty well in this sort of middlebrow between Pixar’s best and Dreamworks’ nonsense.

In Conclusion

So between these two movies and this decade’s other main princess text, Pixar’s Brave, what have we learned about princesses in the 21st century?  Probably not that much.  Honestly the women in these movies don’t really seem all that different from the princesses in the 90s. Mirada from Brave is objectively the strongest of these Strong Female Characters™ and the film she was in is the only one that’s really engages in the roles that existed for women in medieval Europe, but she’s also arguably only strong in so much as she was a tomboy and the whole film kind of felt like it was trying a little too hard to be the opposite of the traditional princess story when it was in fact not really doing much of anything that the Mulans of the world hadn’t already done.  Rapunzel in Tangled by contrast just felt like a standard helpless princess who was given a bunch of extra spunk in some late draft of the screenplay so that they wouldn’t get yelled at by people on the internet.  It’s actually the ladies in Frozen who seem like their relative strength was actually come to organically rather than out of some sort of obligation to create good role models for girls.

That’s probably a big part of why Frozen is probably the best of the three overall.  Brave is probably the most mature of the three films and makes the fewest obvious missteps involving lame comic relief and confused writing but Frozen has higher highs to go along with the lower lows and just generally seems like the most memorable of the three. As for Tangled, well, the less said about it the better.  That movie seemed lame when I watched it and even lamer when I had a much better Disney movie in Frozen to compare it to.  If that movie is remembered at all ten years from now it’s only going to be as a stepping stone for a studio trying to get its footing after a difficult transition.  All this having been said, I don’t think any of these movies are homeruns and I kind of feel like the Disney princess formula is never really going to be my cup o’ tea and given how much money it’s made the company over the years I don’t think the Disney executives are going to be losing much sleep over that.

Mad Max: Fury Road(5/17/2015)

5-17-2015MadMaxFuryRoad

Anyone remember Super 8?  I do, in part because I actually like that movie, but the rest of the world seems to have forgotten it pretty quickly.  It was certainly on the film community’s mind before it came out though, in part because it looked like it would be an oasis in the middle of a summer that was going to be filled with the likes of Green Lantern, The Hangover Part II, and Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tide.  The idea of an original IP from an exciting filmmaker with a fun retro style was like catnip to everyone sick of CGI packed franchise nonsense and everyone assumed that this movie would be our savior.  But when it came out it turned out that it wasn’t a savior so much as it was a well-made summer movie, and there’s nothing that people hate more than a false prophet.  The summer movie that most people did end up sucking off that year ended up being one with all the elements that people hate, it was a CGI-packed prequel/remake/reboot called Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  To my eyes that movie wasn’t any better or worse than Super 8 but it did have the element of surprise and didn’t have the weight of six months of hype leading to its release.

The same thing happened the next year to even a greater degree the next year when the movie Prometheus came out and was also probably harmed by a runaway hype-train that had people thinking it would be the savior of summer fun.  It’s that experience that had me bracing for disappointment when people started to hotly anticipate Mad Max: Fury Road.  The two movies were put on a pedestal for a lot of the same reasons.  Both movies featured veteran directors returning to the 1970s sci-fi franchises that made them famous, both movies promised to use CGI in ways that were necessary rather than excessive, both opted for the more hard core R rating rather than neutering their source material in order to reach a wider audience, and both films had really cool trailers that promised a really distinct visual style being brought to the proceedings.  Somehow I just knew people were going to be burned again and that I’d once again be the one sitting on the sidelines trying to remind people about the film’s merits while everyone else gets dismissive over minor plotholes.  So, I’ve decided to jump off the hypetrain and walk into the movie nearly blind, not quite knowing what to expect.

Like the rest of the movies in the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia that is dominated by roving gangs with crazy cars fighting over the last remaining gasoline.  This one starts at a city called The Citidel which is ruled by a demagogue Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who keeps people in his service by slowly doling out water.  In Joe’s service is a violent gang of thugs called The War Boys who roam the wastes scavenging for items and stealing gas.  As the film begins Max (Tom Hardy) has been captured by these War Boys and is being used as a human bloodbag by a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who’s recovering from an injury.  Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, for Max this particular day a trusted person in Joe’s army named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has just broken Joe’s prized “breeder” women (or sex slaves as they’re more commonly called) out of their confinement and is attempting to drive them away from the Citidel.  Enraged, Joe brings almost his entire army in pursuit and since Nux has no intention of missing out on the battle he decides to strap Max to his car in order to keep his blood transfusion going as he joins the convoy going after Furiosa.

Let’s take a step back and consider the earlier films in this franchise.  The Mad Max movies hold a rather strange position among commercial films in that they seem to be widely known but are perhaps not actually all that widely watched.  The original Mad Max in particular is rough viewing for anyone not accustomed to the beats and pacing of 70s exploitation movies and few people seem to like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, so the series legacy rests almost entirely on the second film which was released as The Road Warrior stateside and even it is mostly just known for its final twenty minute actions sequence.  Still, there’s a reason why these movies are so famous and that’s the wild vision of the post-apocalyptic future that George Miller seems to have.  The world of Mad Max can be seen in everything from Cormac Mcarthy’s “The Road” to 2pac’s “California Love” video to the “Fallout” video game series, but there’s hardly a single famous line of dialogue from any of the films and individual scenes that don’t involve car chases are rarely cited.

It’s been thirty years since the last Mad Max movie came out but for better or worse the same strengths and weaknesses seem to exist in the newest film in the series.  The title character has never been the best part of any of these movies; he’s always been a drifter in the Yojimbo tradition who’s pretty much devoid of any real personality beyond the fact that he’s apparently tortured over the death of his wife and daughter.  Mel Gibson had enough screen presence to make it work and so does Tom Hardy to some extent but the character is still a real nothingburger in this new movie.  He is less of a lone warrior this time around as Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is practically a co-lead but isn’t much more talkative than Max is.  Both character do have a somewhat tantalizing mystery to them and do function quite well in action scenes but they’re odd characters to rest an entire film on.  The performance that really stole the show for me was Nicholas Hoult’s work as a hyper War Boy who slowly starts to realize that the leader he’s been loyal to has not had his best interests in mind.

The film’s real star is almost certainly its visual design, which is absolutely vivid.  You can tell that in the thirty-some years it took to finally return to this franchise George Miller has spent every day coming up with new and inventive ways to let his freak flag fly in this post-apocalyptic setting and he’s put every one of them into this movie.  Take a look at the villainous Immortan Joe for example, who looks like a sort of steampunk Darth Vader with a respirator over his mouth that has skull-like teeth on the front of it, or his gang of War Boys who are these sort of gangly hyper junkies with bald heads and white makeup.  I could go on and on listing cool elements like that, the highlight is probably a car in Joe’s war party seemingly meant to pump up his troops by playing rock music played by drummers in the back seat and a guitar player in bondage gear standing at the front strumming out licks and shooting flames out of the neck of his instrument. The odds of such a rig being at all workable in a resource starved future, but practical realism is not the point, this is expressionistic filmmaking that’s been tailored to look really cool on screen and it can be rather intoxicating.

Those visuals alone do more or less make the film worth seeing and so do the film’s many action scenes, which are highly kinetic and appear to feature some rather dangerous stunt work.  CGI is obviously used to some extent (this is an action movie made in 2015 after all) but it doesn’t seem to dominate the entire film like it so often does in blockbusters these days.  A couple of the fight scenes did seem a bit over-edited to me, but for the most part they are pretty thrilling.  They have to be by the way because this film is to a certain extent one elongated chase scene for the entirety of the film with a couple of lulls here and there for the audience to catch their breath.  The dialogue is… I don’t know if minimalist is the right word but it certainly isn’t front and center and the story is at the end of the day quite simple.  Some commenters have highlighted that Max’s mission is to rescue the “breeders” that Joe has held captive and that he’s being aided by a tough woman and have tried to make the film into some kind of grand feminist statement, but I’m not really sure that amounts to much.  Sure, if feminism is a binary I suppose this film would qualify but whatever statement it’s making is minor.  A character reluctantly deciding to help a group of white slaves from a common enemy is not exactly revolutionary and while it’s nice to see that women are allowed to have murky pasts and fight people alongside men these days I feel like I’ve been there and done before too.

I started this review by talking about my prediction that this movie would disappoint people and I’d be left to defend it from the nitpickers… well that hasn’t happened.  Turns out people absolutely love this movie and I’m actually the one sitting on the outside saying “hold on a second, it isn’t that great.”  Make no mistake, I think this is a badass that I greatly enjoyed and look forward to seeing again many times but I must say I also find it to be a fairly superficial accomplishment.  As much as I enjoyed looking at it I found its themes shallow, its characters boring, and its story simplistic.  If it had a less engaging presentation it would be bordering on poor, and it probably says something about just how amazing its visual design is that it carries the movie as much as it does.  The again this is the summer movie season and “mindless” is the order of the day, so if a movie is going to be shallow it might as well be shallow in ways that are this exciting and awesome.

***1/2 out of Four