Toy Story 4(6/20/2019)

With only a few recent exceptions I generally only watch Pixar movies on home video but when I do find myself seeing one in theaters it’s a bit of a trip because it means I get exposed to a set of trailers I normally don’t see.  These trailers are usually a window into a world of absolute madness.  At my Toy Story 4 screening I bore witness to one trailer about a pigeon who becomes a secret agent, some bullshit about a fox that wants to be a sled dog, a sequel to an Angry Birds movie I had assumed was a flop, and another sequel about troll dolls which resembled a candy-colored hellscape of noise and terror.  What I’m trying to say is, before you watch one of these Pixar movies you’re immediately reminded of how much worse the rest of the cartoons out there and the way the audience laughs at jokes about butts reminds you that, if they wanted to Pixar could be a lot more pandering and stupid than they are.  Of course Pixar has always set themselves apart from their peers, which is something I wasn’t really taking into account when I was reviewing them all in a marathon session back in 2011 (long story).  That article series was an exercise in comparing Pixar movies to the best that cinema had to offer, but as the years go on and I get a better idea of what contemporary animation is like and start comparing them to that and they start looking a whole lot better.  Still, I have a bit of a quirky relationship to Pixar’s movies, especially their Toy Story franchise, and that made me rather unsure if I wanted a fourth.

Toy Story 4 actually starts with a flashback.  It dramatizes something that is alluded to in the third film: the night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) leaves the rest of the toys because the family decides to give away the lamp that she’s part of.  We then flash forward to the status quo after the third film, in which the toys we’ve been following have been given away to a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  I always found it a little bit strange that this 2010 kid would be so interested in receiving a bunch of hand-me-down toys from the 90s which look like they’re actually from the 50s and as this new film establishes, I may have been right to be suspicious.  As it turns out Bonnie does not actually spend much time playing with Woody (Tom Hanks), and being the vain attention whore that he’s always been he doesn’t exactly react well.  When he learns that Bonnie is about to be going on her first day of kindergarten he sneaks into her backpack under the delusion she needs him and, seeing her distressed on her first day he tosses some scraps up to her table while she’s doing crafts and with them she makes a weird little statue out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, and some fake googly eyes and dubs him “Forky.”  Soon thereafter Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient, and sensing that he’s a monstrosity immediately tries to kill himself by jumping into the trashcan.  Woody determines that Bonnie has formed an attachment to Forky and does everything he can to keep Forky alive, which will be challenging because Bonnie’s parents are about to bring her on a road trip with all her toys.

This is a movie that a lot of people were really skeptical about in the run-up to its release because it was believed that Toy Story 3 had a perfect ending and that this would ruin it.  I am a bit of an outlier in that I thought the ending of Toy Story 3 was far from perfect.  Where other people were apparently bawling out their eyes at the sight of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, I was thinking what the hell kind of seventeen year old gives this much of a damn about old toys he should have thrown out when he turned twelve?  To me the whole thing was an overly sentimental cop out.  Toy Story 3 was basically a retread of the themes established in Toy Story 2 about toys eventually being abandoned by their owners, its one reason to exist was to finally have this calamity to catch up with our characters and force them to face their fate… but the movie didn’t end up having the nerve to finally take the killshot and instead it basically gave its characters a new beginning which more or less set up a new series, so the fact that they’re continuing the franchise isn’t that much of a shock to me.

To me what has made some of the previous Toy Story movies interesting was the world building.  A lot of animated movies build fantastical worlds where with talking animals or objects but the Toy Story movies are at least a little interested in exploring how the worlds they create are actually kind of fucked up.  These movies make being a talking toy seem like a sort of existential hell of slavery and ingratitude… or at least that’s what I get out of them, the movies themselves would hint at all this while never quite having it in them to truly challenge the system they’ve established.  Toy Story 4 is in many ways the Toy Story movie I’ve been waiting for in that the toys in it seem to finally be catching up to my way of seeing things.  Case in point the newest addition to the cast, Forky, is the first toy we’ve really met who seems to view itself as a genuine monstrosity and spends much of the first half of the movie seeking death via trashcan.  That is certainly an interesting approach but what’s really important is that Forky’s attitude does seem to plant a seed of sorts in the mind of some key characters in that he’s one of the first toy characters we’ve seen that doesn’t seem to have an instinctual desire to be played with by children and is decidedly not happy to be asked to do so.  This seed is then watered and sprouted by the re-emergence of Bo Peep, who had been effectively killed off between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is now a “lost toy” and happy to be one because she’s free of having to spend all her time making some child happy.

Of course the Toy Story movies have long been meant as a sort of allegory for the relationship of a parent to a child and this fourth movie definitely carries that forward and leans into moments where the characters talk about “having a kid” as if they were parents instead of playthings.  That’s part of why I always found the ending of Toy Story 3 to be kind of inadequate given that the toys don’t move on to a new phase of life after metaphorically letting Andy go but rather end up essentially replacing him and starting all over again.  It’s as if they’re living out the life cycle of some rich dude who ends up impregnating a new trophy wife right as their kid from a previous marriage is going to college.  Toy Story 4, by contrast is more like a movie where the toys (well, Woody anyway) actually do manage to find a new purpose in life after becoming empty nesters.  It’s a notably different outlook from what we’ve seen earlier in the series which were usually populated by toys like Jessie and Lotso who, once removed from “their kids,” basically spend their whole lives feeling bitter and incomplete.  Bo Peep, by contrast, seems to be revitalized through independence and the film at least understands why Forky (who’s maybe a bit of a stand-in for young father who causes an unplanned pregnancy) would not be pumped to be in played with by this kid.

This all isn’t to say that the series has suddenly become entirely Antinatalist.  Plenty of the toys here are still very interested in coming into the possession of a child, like a pair of carnival prizes played by Key and Peele who sort of steal the show as comic relief characters who’ve been waiting three long years for someone to win them in the rigged midway game that’s trapped them.  Then there’s the film’s villain Gabby Gabby, who is a bit of a retread of the “villainous bitter toy” thing that they’ve done in the last two films, but who none the less proves to be a rather sympathetic depiction of what is essentially the pain of infertility given that she’s a toy who was deemed defective from out of the factor and has spent decades in an antique store removed from children.  Nonetheless, this is the Toy Story movie that finally suggests that there are other legitimate ways for these toys to live and in many ways provides some of the characters with an ending that manages to be happy while still making more allegorical sense.  As such I reject the notion I’ve seen floated around that this is some kind of unnecessary cash grab, in fact I’d say that scene for scene it might actually be the best of the series.  It manages to tell a larger and more meaningful story than the first movie, its comedy is a lot better than the second film’s, and it doesn’t wallow in the cheap sentimentality of the third.  Of course this is coming from someone who didn’t grow up with these characters and has a somewhat perverse take on the whole franchise so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.

**** out of Five

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Non-Fiction(6/5/2019)

I’ve never quite been able to pin down Olivier Assayas’ style as a filmmaker.  He isn’t a commercial filmmaker and he takes his craft very seriously like an auteur, and yet he seems to move on very quickly between different ideas and any one of his films is likely to seem quite different from the last.  His last two movies were both fairly serious English language films starring Kristen Stewart so it had seemed like he had found a lane he was going to stick to, but instead he’s completely switched things up with his latest film which is a essentially a modern French take on a Woody Allen movie.  The movie concerns an author who is currently having an affair with his publisher’s wife while he’s having an affair with the lady who’s helping convert his publishing house to digital.  Very French.  But the affairs are more of a plot structure to hang the movie on than the real focus, which is a series of witty discussions about the digital future and its effect on publishing, which is more than likely meant to be a stand in on its effect on the world of cinema.  Lest you wonder where Assayas himself comes down on all of this, note that the film was shot on 16mm despite it being a very talky movie that isn’t going for much in the way of visual style.  It’s very much a movie of the moment, one that might seem a bit odd a few decades from now, or it might seem interestingly prescient.  As a comedy I don’t know that I found the movie overly funny but as a fun witty look at the discussions of the modern intellectual class it was fun to watch.  Did I mention that it feels a whole lot like a Woody Allen movie?

*** out of Five

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix(6/6/2019)

I think I was the only person holding out hope for X-Men: Dark Phoenix.  That might partially be because I generally liked the last movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse, more than most.  It wasn’t great but it had some good X-Men fun in it and introduced a promising roster of young actors to play young versions of the second generation of X-Men at Xavier’s mutant academy.  I also feel like a lot of the critics went into the movie a bit too wrapped up in their inside baseball knowledge about Disney buying 20th Century Fox and planning to reboot the franchise.  It may well have been true that this franchise was doomed by business concerns, but the filmmakers probably didn’t know that when this went into production and were presumably trying to make a quality film that would get the franchise back on track.  On some level I was really hoping they would prove the doubters wrong by knocking this out of the park and forcing them to keep the X-Men series I grew up on going.  That wasn’t such a crazy thing to hope for, the franchise has bounced back from the brink in the past.  Unfortunately the movie they produced was decidedly not a home run that would prove anyone wrong, but I also don’t think it’s a movie that’s as much of a disaster as people are making it out to be.

If there’s anything to complain about with X-Men: Dark Phoenix it’s that it’s a movie which tries nothing new and does nothing unexpected.  It’s set about ten years after X-Men: Apolcalypse in 1992 but does pretty much nothing with that setting and it’s also still done basically nothing to make its chracters look like they’ve aged a decade (supposed Holocaust survivor Magneto still appears to be forty and isn’t starting to resemble Ian McKellen even a little).  Once again the franchise is taking on the Dark Phoenix Saga and this time has Jean Gray becoming “the phoenix” by coming in contact with a sort of force while on a rescue mission in space (despite the previous movie and the still-kinda-canon X2 both suggesting that it’s actually something latent in her powers).  So clearly there’s some sloppiness on display here but the movie generally isn’t, like, aggressively stupid and its tone is largely in line with what we’ve been seeing from the other movies in the “First Class” timeline of X-Men movies.  I did enjoy getting another look at what these characters are up to and there is something of an underdeveloped but interesting conflict between Xavier and various other mutants who sort of view him as a conformist “respectability politics” sellout to the cause.

Reports indicate that the film’s final sequence was re-shot because what they had done turned out to be too similar to the finale of Captain Marvel, which was probably money well spent because the closing action scenes are some of the best parts of the movie even if they don’t exactly blow what other superhero movies have been doing out of the water. What’s odd though is that the film’s villains are also a bit too similar to some of the bad guys from that film and its opening scene is pretty similar to the opening scene from Shazam, and in general it doesn’t introduce any characters or concepts that we didn’t see in other better X-Men movies.  In general this movie is kind of a victim of the general over-saturation of superhero flicks these days.  If this had been X-Men 3 back in 2006 instead of the offensively botched X-Men: The Last Stand it would have been able to hold its own pretty well, but in 2019 specifically the standards are a lot higher.  Still, my experience watching this movie was not a terrible one.  It mostly passed the time effectively and in general I think its 23% Rotten Tomatoes score and will probably provide some thrills to fans of the series.  Walking out of the movie I was about ready to give it a pass but then I remembered the critically reviled film from the last week which I also defended: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  That movie was all kinds of stupid, but the lower lows came with higher highs and the kind of thrills it offered were in much shorter supply than what we get from this movie, and I ultimately think that was a movie I’d be more inclined to go to bat for.  This one? It’s not the hill I’m willing to die on.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Dead Don’t Die(6/13/2019)

I generally like Jim Jarmusch movies but I don’t think I’ve ever really loved any of them.  The guy in many ways feels like a product of a very specific time in which independent movies were rather novel and simply embodying a certain bohemian coolness was enough to get by, but he did usually have at least some additional ideas behind what he was doing.  His latest movie has a staggering number of famous people in it and plays in genre, so it’s getting a somewhat wide release, but god help anyone who stumbles into this movie not knowing its indie lineage because they will definitely find it to be a strange and off-putting experience.  The film is meant as a highly post-modern take on the conventions of the zombie film via a zombie attack on a small town in Pennsylvania.  There are a whole lot of characters, probably too many, but the most important are probably the sheriff and his deputy, played by Bill Murray and Adam Driver, which would seem like a smart comic pairing but Jarmusch has all his characters here speak in the most intentionally stilted of dialogue.  The film takes the most broad of comic material but treats it with the dryest deadpan possible, which is maybe an interesting idea but I don’t think it really translates into compelling viewing.  Beyond that a lot of other things the movie tries to do just sort of flame out.  It teases at political relevance here and there, mainly through maga-hat wearing farmer played by Steve Buscemi, but that goes nowhere and there’s also a fourth wall breaking element that ultimately feels pretty empty.  In many ways it feels like Jarmusch was just throwing a whole lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks and I wish he had instead focused in on a couple of them and actually made them work because the movie he delivered is downright dull at times.

** out of Five

Rocketman(6/1/2019)

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Ghibli Beyond Miyazaki – The Next Generation

Last year I did a Crash Course article that took a closer look at the famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, focusing on the films made by people other than their most famous creator Hayao Miyazaki.  That Crash Course mainly focused on the movies of Isao Takahata as well as the one film that was made by Yoshifumi Kondō before his untimely death.  Now a year later I’m coming back to the subject to in some ways close the book on Ghibli by watching most of the rest of their non-Miyazaki output.  For this installment I’ll be looking at the films made in the 21st century by the younger filmmakers who were meant to be a second generation of animators who would take over from the aging and retirement prone Miyazaki and Takahata.  Two of these films were directed by the literal next generation vis a vie Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki, and two of them were directed by their longtime animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and the fifth (though chronologically first) was an odd little side project directed by a guy named Hiroyuki Morita, who was the closest thing to an outside mercenary working on a Ghibli film.

The Cat Returns (2002)

To the best of my knowledge there have only been two people to direct one and only one feature length theatrical film for Ghibli, and interestingly both of their movies are tangentially linked.  The first was Yoshifumi Kondō, who made the film Whisper of the Heart in 1995 but tragically died of an aneurysm a few years later.  The other is Hiroyuki Morita, director of what is something of a spinoff of Whisper of the Heart entitled The Cat ReturnsWhisper of the Heart was mostly a down to earth coming of age film but it did contain one fantasy scene which was meant to be a staging of a story the protagonist has written which features a dapper anthropomorphized cat called The Baron.  This character proved to be so popular that a Japanese amusement park commissioned Ghibli to make a twenty minute short featuring the character and other cats to be part of a ride.  Plans for the ride eventually fell through but Ghibli decided to continue with the short and expand it into a feature which would be something of a test for their young talent.  The film’s final director would end up being Morita, who unlike a lot of the other Ghibli directors is not someone who had been working non-stop for the studio for decades on end and actually has a pretty long resume doing anime work for more conventional studios and has credits as diverse as Akira, Perfect Blue, and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Though the cat does indeed return in The Cat Returns this is not really a sequel of any kind to Whisper of the Heart and does not exist in that movie’s reality or continuity, in essence it simply recycles a popular character from it in a completely different context.  The film runs a scant 75 minutes and plays out a bit like “Alice in Wonderland” in the way its female protagonist finds herself entering a strange fantasy world in something of a dreamlike state before eventually facing down a homicidal monarch.  Throughout she is guided by The Baron, who remains a very amusing presence, but the protagonist herself is very thinly drawn and just generally not very interesting.  The film’s fantastical finale is clearly the highlight, but compared to some of the greatest set-pieces from some of Ghibli’s other movies it doesn’t quite stack up, and that’s probably true about the film as a whole.  In some ways it almost feels more like Ghibli fanfiction than an actual Ghibli film and it never really transcends its origins as a side project.  Still there are some highly amusing moments along the way and I wouldn’t say it was strictly for diehards and completeists, but it does border on that status.

*** out of Five

Tales from Earthsea (2006)

While there are some Ghibli movies that people like better than others but they’ve only really made one movie that critics generally think is straight-up bad and that’s the 2006 film Tales from EarthseaTales From Earthsea was the directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, who is indeed the son of studio founder Hayao Miyazaki.  Goro apparently wasn’t someone who long dreamed of getting into the family business and originally studied to be a landscaper.  Eventually that led him to take a gig landscaping for Ghibli’s museum in Mitaka, which he ended up serving as the director of, and somehow or other he ended up doing storyboards for the Tales from Earthsea project and was promoted to director by the film’s producer.  By all accounts this final promotion was not done at his father’s behalf, in fact Hayao actively fought against the move and led to a lot of friction in the family.  This might in part have been because the Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin, upon which the film was based, was actually quite important to Miyazaki and he’s cited it as an influence on his own fantasy worlds and when given the chance to adapt them he didn’t want to be seen as risking it on nepotism.  This whole psychodrama had all the makings for a great story of a father coming to realize his son’s true potential but… given the final product Hayao may have had good reasons to question the hiring.

Watching Tales from Earthsea I couldn’t help but think of another movie that’s considered something of a lowpoint for a major animation studio: Disney’s The Black Cauldron.   Like that misbegotten 1985 film this is based on an entire series of fantasy novels but the film does a very bad job of bringing attention to whatever it is that’s supposed to make this fantasy world special and instead just feels like a bit of a mess with a super bland protagonist.  But unlike The Black Cauldron, Tales from Earthsea isn’t really doing anything terribly groundbreaking with its animation.  There are some cool images in the movie but nothing that really one-ups what’s been done in other Ghibli movies and the ending feels like a pretty standard fantasy battle of good versus evil.  In many ways it just feels like a lesser anime studio trying to imitate Ghibli rather than the real thing and even worse than that the movie is downright boring.  The movie did make decent money in Japan but critics rightly called it out.  It even went so far as to win Japan’s equivalent of the Razzie award, which is a bit much, but its reputation as an ambitious debacle is mostly earned and I have very few nice things to say about it.

*1/2 out of Five

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

The 2010s have been a kind of strange decade for Studio Ghibli.  The new generation seem to have learned from the failure of Tales from Earthsea that they were probably never going to be able to match Hayao Miyazaki when it came to making epic fantasy films and also weren’t really interested in engaging in wild experimentation of the Isao Takahata.  Instead it seems that the new generation of Ghibli found themselves doing what Yoshifumi Kondō did fifteen years earlier: using the Ghibli style to make more intimate character driven films.  The first of the new generation to try this was a guy named Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who along with Goro Miyazaki was slated to be the studio’s standard bearer for the future.  Yonebayashi, unlike Hiroyuki Morita, was a homegrown talent at Ghibli who had been working in some capacity or other on their films going all the way back to Princess Mononoke and would have been about 37 when he was entrusted to finally direct a full movie for the studio.

Yonebayashi’s first film is The Secret World of Arrietty (which was released as just Arrietty outside of North America) is an adaptation of an old British kids book called “The Borrowers,” which is one of those classic YA books like The Little Prince or The Secret Garden that they keep trying make younger generations read even though they kind of put modern kids to sleep.  It gets adapted a lot, as a child I think I saw a version of it that came out in 1997.  For this version the action has been moved over to rural Japan, which is a pretty reasonable fit as the story’s low key quiet nature kind of fits that setting well.  The titular character, Arrietty is one of these borrowers which are three inch tall little fairy people who live hidden in houses and “borrow” (but really steal) small household items that won’t be missed from the people who live there.  She’s fourteen years old and the plot kicks into motion when she is discovered and forms a friendship with a young teenager living in the house they currently reside in.  Actually “plot kicks in” is maybe a bit misleading because this story proves to be really, really, really low stakes. It’s almost more of a tone piece than anything, and I’m not sure that tone pieces are what people go to Ghibli for but it’s pretty effective at being what it wants to be.

*** out of Five

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

After the artistic failure of Tales From Earthsea it wouldn’t have surprised me if Goro Miyazaki gave up directing and went back to landscaping, but instead Ghibli decided he deserved a chance at redemption and I don’t think they were wrong for doing so.  Tales From Earthsea was bad but it wasn’t incompetent; it’s failure likely less to do with a lack of directorial skill on his part and more from the fact that he was trying to run before he learned to walk.  For his next attempt he would take a page from Hiromasa Yonebayashi and try to use Ghibli animation to make a smaller scale and more personal film about young people.  That film was From Up on Poppy Hill, a Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa scripted film about a teenage girl living in Yokohama in 1964 who is working to save her school’s beloved clubhouse from demolition and who meets a boy along the way who she comes to learn she may be connected to through some murky past connection.

From Up on Poppy Hill is not a movie that “needed” to be animated necessarily.  There’s no supernatural aspect to speak of and even the period detail in the film isn’t overly elaborate, but it feels like it would be less noteworthy as a live action film just the same.  The film is in many ways a nostalgic look back on a time period, but for a time period that would have been far more familiar to the film’s co-writer Hayao Miyazaki than to his son.  That doesn’t really keep Goro Miyazaki from capturing what seems like an authentic if perhaps idealized version of its time and place.  Where the film starts to lose me a bit is with the characters, which are rather un-nuanced.  If there’s one thing about Ghibli that watching a lot of their movies has kind of exposed is that they tend to create really straightforwardly moral and uncomplicated protagonists for their movies, which isn’t such a problem when you’re making movies with more of a fantasy/adventure dimension but which becomes more of a problem when you make movies like this which are meant to be more straightforward character dramas.  It’s not a fatal flaw but it does keep From Up on Poppy Hill from really standing out as something more than a thoroughly “nice” story about a moment in the life of some young people.

***1/2 out of Five

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In 2013 Studio Ghibli released The Wind Rises, a film that was announced as the Hayao Miyazaki and then later that year (in Japan anyway) they released The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was announced as Isao Takahata’s final film.  That one two punch meant that Ghibli would no longer be the home of the two filmmakers who had more or less founded the studio and acted as the twin pillars holding it up for over twenty five years.  So the question then was what would happen to the studio without them and the answer to that was and is rather unclear.  There was however one more film in the pipeline from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, another low key drama called When Marnie Was There.  The film concerns a girl who goes to live with her aunt and uncle in a small seaside town (small seaside towns are something of a theme with Ghibli during this era) and finds herself interacting with the ghost of a girl who once lived in a mansion nearby.  The film is based on an English children’s novel from the 60s by Joan G. Robinson and like Yonebayashi’s other Ghibli movie it has the feel of a certain old fashioned brand of “respectable” family film that I don’t quite have the name for.

When Marnie Was There isn’t bad at all, but it also doesn’t strike me as anything particularly brilliant.  Like a lot of these second generation Ghibli movies it feels like a movie that’s trying to coast on a sort of bland respectability rather than really using anime to do something special.  In many ways it feels like the hit 2016 anime film Your Name, or I guess you could say that Your Name took what Ghibli had been doing that decade and managed to take it that extra step into really feeling alive.  The film does manage to give its protagonist just a little bit more edge than some of their other main characters by making her a foster child with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, but she’s still ultimately a protagonist with a fairly minor arc and the supporting characters are also largely just “nice.”  The film somewhat interestingly makes its title character, the rather spectral Marnie, a white foreigner living in Japan.  I was wondering if that would ultimately play more of a role in the film but it mostly doesn’t, it would have mostly played out the same if she had just been another Japanese character.  It also has an ending which feels more enevitable than surprising, which I suppose was the point but just the same it didn’t do a whole lot for me.

*** out of Five

And so far that is the last film that Studio Ghibli ever put out.  Technically the studio was put “on hiatus” but I must say things aren’t looking too promising.  Isao Takahata passed away last year and even if he hadn’t he had already announced his retirement.  Hayao Miyazaki is now 78 and he’s been in and out of retirement.  He does appear to be making another last film, this one called “How Do You Live,” and if and when that comes out it will have been the studio’s first film in at least five years.  Either way he’s clearly not going to be able to keep the studio afloat single-handedly and it would appear that the people in charge have decided that the younger generation they trained don’t have what it takes.  Hiromasa Yonebayashi apparently got fed up and left Ghibli to co-found a competing studio called Studio Ponoc, where he directed a movie called Mary and the Witch’s Flower which I’ve heard some good things about.  I’m not really sure what Goro Miyazaki has been up to lately.  He apparently directed a TV series for another company in 2014 but the trail sort of ends there.

All told I do think that the way the studio was shut down through lack of faith in Goro and Yonebayashi was a bit harsh given that the movies they made were hardly terrible, but at the same time I can kind of sympathize.  I remember when those movies were playing in theaters and I opted not to go because I felt like I didn’t really have the background to contextualize the Ghibli films that weren’t Hayao Miyazaki joints and part of running these two series was to get to that place.  Having seen the movies I kind of feel like I was overthinking things before, but I also sort of feel like I wasn’t really missing all that much.  These late Ghibli films just kind of feel like well executed if highly run of the mill anime and they just don’t have that spark which made Ghibli an internationally beloved brand.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters(5/30/2019)

Me and Godzilla go way back.  When I was a kid, I’m not sure what age range but probably before I was even ten, I would take every opportunity to watch the original Toho Godzilla movies when what was known at the time as The Sci-Fi Channel.  I didn’t even really watch the 1954 original that much, it was mainly the many sequels from the 60s and 70s that I was watching (what I would later learn was called the Shōwa Era of the series).  However, unlike other childhood obsessions like the Universal Monsters of the James Bond series I never really stuck to the Godzilla movies.  Part of that is that the world was not still supplying me with new ones (it wasn’t until much later that I learned that they were still pretty regularly making these things in Japan without exporting them) and partly because, well… those movies are kind of hard to defend objectively.  I watch old clips from some of them and I can pretty easily see why someone not nostalgically inclined towards them would just laugh at them, hell I do myself even if I still have some warmth for them.  On some level my blinders towards the flaws in these movies even extend towards the questionable American remakes.  As dumb as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie is and as dull as elements of the 2014 reboot was it’s hard to complain about them with too much of a straight face once you’ve established affection for, say, a movie where Godzilla fights a robotic version of himself built by space gorillas alongside another monster brought to life by a lady singing a very long j-pop song.  And it was with all this baggage that I arrived at the opening day of the sequel to that 2014 American Godzilla film: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

This sequel is set at least five years after the evens of the 2014 Godzilla and eschews most of the cast from that movie.  Here we follow the Russells, a family that was in San Francisco when Godzilla fought the two MUTOs and lost a son during that attack.  Years later they’re split up.  Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is now focused on his career as an animal behavioral expert while his ex-wife Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has begun working for an organization called Monarch, which studies other giant creatures called titans which have been discovered in the time since the first movie.  As the film starts Russell is studying a giant larva which has just hatched and is using a device she has invented called the ORCA which is meant to communicate with these titans through subsonic frequencies.  Right as she’s taming mothra her operation is attacked by a group of Eco-terrorists led by a guy named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) who steal the ORCA and kidnap both Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).  With the device lose and potentially able to wake up the wrong titans, Mark is brought in to help track the terrorists down and avert disaster.

Let’s get this out right away: this movie has a terrible script.  More specifically it has terrible characters.  The guy Kyle Chandler plays is just the worst kind of Hollywood “hero.”  He has a murky background, his brashness is constantly rewarded by the script, and he seems to continually be allowed to be in the middle of things by authority figures despite not really having any qualifications besides the fact that he’s trying to save his daughter.  His wife isn’t much better.  There’s a shred of a good idea in making the villains environmentalist extremists who believe the titans should reign but the movie doesn’t develop the idea properly at all and their motivations ultimately just seem completely stupid.  The dialogue isn’t much better; it mostly consists of rote exposition and while there aren’t many attempts at humor the ones they do try either fall flat or maybe elicit a small chuckle at best.

So, terrible movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  If there’s anything redeeming about this script it’s that the things that are bad about it are bad in a way that’s kind of generic and unobtrusive.  You look at them, you know they’re bad, but they aren’t so groan-worthy that they completely distract from the rest of the action.   In a way they almost in keeping with the lackluster human stories that were always there in those early Toho films and they also don’t take up nearly as much screen time as the only moderately superior human stuff from the 2014 movie.  And that “rest of the action” in the movie was for the most part very strong.  The main thing being added to the movie are additional kaiju including three of the most famous monsters from the franchise: Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah and each time one of them comes into the movie it’s an event to behold.  Mothra is beautiful and has a pretty good theme behind it, while Rodan is ferocious and immediately leads the airforce on a thrilling chase sequence.  Then of course there’s Ghidorah, who is a major fan favorite.  Whenever this dude would show up in one of those old movies you knew you were in for a treat.  He didn’t have much of a personality, but he was a really good design, you always knew when he was on screen that there were three Japanese dudes just off frame holding fishing poles to control the three heads in unison.  Seeing that creature rendered on screen in 2019 with top of the line Hollywood effects is just kind of amazing and the movie makes the character properly intimidating.

So what we have with this movie is some of what I would consider very good action filmmaking that’s propping up a lousy script.  I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing; cinema isn’t literature, movies don’t entirely live and die by their writing.  Of course that’s true about a lot of bad action movies, so why am I using these old “leave your brain at the door”/“They made it for the fans!” type of excuses for this one?  Well, the joke response is that those other movies don’t have Ghidorah in them, but in some ways that is how I feel.  I don’t think this is pure fanboyism either, I think the majesty of these kaiju and this history behind them does transcend some of the film’s more pedestrian shortcomings.  Beyond that though I’d say part of it is an expectation game brought on by the early reviews.  I get why those other critics were not impressed: the larger ambitions of the 2014 film combined with those trailers set to “Clair de Lune” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” promised something a lot more sophisticated than this and if I hadn’t been primed for lowered expectations by the film’s 39% Rotten Tomatoes score I would probably have been less inclined to focus on the positives as well.  Also, I think critics today really demand silly movies like this kind of signal their intentions by telling a lot of jokes and sort of winking at the audience in ways that this movie doesn’t.  I, however, am not always on board with that approach (see also my against the grain enjoyment of Man of Steel) and at this point generally find it refreshing when stupid movies take themselves very seriously.  So really I get why this thing isn’t getting the strongest of reviews, it kind of deserves it, but if you’re the right kind of person there is plenty of fun to be had with it.

*** out of Five

May 2019 Round-Up

Long Shot(5/5/2019)

Putting out any movie the week after Avengers: Endgame was bound to be a rather fraught choice and it would seem that the producers of the new Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron comedy were hoping they could pull it off as a counter-programming move and it doesn’t look like the gamble paid off for them at all.  The movie was basically marketed as a romantic comedy, which it basically is in terms of basic formula, but it also has a lot more R-rated Seth Rogan comedy than its advertising would have you think.  The film focuses on an unlikely romance between a youngish female Secretary of State and an out of work journalist who makes a habit of walking around in windbreakers but nonetheless has a certain charm to him and strong political convictions.  The basic premise of the film is of course reminiscent of Rogan’s breakthrough film Knocked Up, which was another hybrid of crude and romantic comedy about how Rogan is not exactly the most likely physical specimen to be the partner of a beautiful and successful career woman.  That basic premise did grate on people with the earlier film with the view being that it was a sort of wish fulfilment fantasy that forgave male mediocrity.   I get why people would see it that way, but if you think about it a lot of traditional romantic comedies also focus around career women falling for salt of the earth losers, the only difference is that in Rogan’s films they aren’t being played by hunky Matthew McConaughey and the screenplay actually acknowledges and makes funny jokes about how unlikely such a pairing would be.

For their part I think Rogan and Theron do have some genuine chemistry and the movie does a fairly good job of making the audience understand how Theron would at least be intrigued by Rogan.  Where the movie really stumbles for me is less in its romantic comedy than in its political comedy.  The plot is based around a strange contrivance where the current president is a dumbass played by Bob Odenkirk who is planning to step down after his first term in order to pursue a career in Hollywood acting… which feels like a bit of absurdity out of a different movie.  The movie never makes mention of what party Odenkirk is in, but given that he’s being heavily supported by a news channel that is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Fox News one would assume that he is a Republican and yet absolutely everything about policies that Theron is advancing screams Democrat so it’s unclear why she is in the same administration.  The movie seems to want to walk some kind of line where it never called the parties by name (except in one scene late in the movie where it rather jarringly does) but that approach simply does not make sense to me in the hyper-partisan world we live in.  Like a lot of political movies it wants to exist in a sort of fictional world where everything didn’t go crazy after 9/11 and the dream of the 90s lived on.  I just don’t think you can get away with that anymore.  Still, if you’re able to set that aside and you’re able to get behind the Rogan and Theron relationship there is a lot of funny stuff in Long Shot and I would recommend it over most of the weak-ass comedies that have been in theaters lately.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Shadow(5/18/2019)

Zhang Yimou is a director who was once quite the critical darling and while he’s never exactly gone out of favor he has lost some of his edge as he’s become increasingly commercial since the international success of his 2003 film Hero, which is I believe the only foreign produced subtitled movie to debut at number one at the American box office.  He never quite had the same success despite some of his follow-ups like House of Flying Daggers being quite solid but he does still have the clout to make movies on a pretty large budget and while many of them are not profound works of art they usually are quite beautiful.  His latest film, Shadow is a return to his work making period epics and like a lot of his work it is quite pretty.  The film is sharply shot and would be very worthy nominee for best costumes if given the chance by the Academy.  However the movie has a bit of a darker streak than a lot of his other movies.  The story concerns a man who is being used as a decoy/double for a powerful general who is waylaid by illness and in the midst of a power struggle with the local king.  That business with doubles brings to mind Kurosawa’s Kagemusha but the film also brings to mind Ran in that it seems to be trying to invoke a sort of Shakespearian tragedy in the way everyone is kind of messed up and acting at cross purposes and aren’t necessarily going to have things go well for them by the end.  It is however, a bit too silly to live up to all of that.  This is the movie’s ultimate Achilles heel: it’s not really a martial arts movie and isn’t able to be carried by its action scenes but the drama doesn’t necessarily stand on its own either and the action scenes that are in it involve these sword umbrellas that look kind of ridiculous.  There’s enough here to be worth a look and some of the visuals are indeed quite strong but I wouldn’t call it a must-see.

*** out of Five

 

Booksmart(5/23/2019)

Set Rogan’s Long Shot opened as counter-programing to Avengers: Endgame and was not particularly well rewarded at the box office, now two weeks later the Rogan-inspired comedy Booksmart is opening opposite the Aladdin remake and is not expected to do much better.  When Blockers failed to gain any real traction last year I was pretty much resigned to the fact that this wave of post-Apatow R-rated comedies were kind of dead at the box office, but I still like them and will keep going to them as long as they’re being made and Booksmart is a pretty good one.  Focusing on two high achieving teenage girls who, upon discovering that the slackers they’ve been sticking their noses up at have also gotten into Ivy League universities, decide they’re going to use the last day of high school to let loose and party for the first time but must go on something of an odyssey in order to figure out the address of the cool kids’ party.  I can definitely relate to that same frustration at seeing people who do dumb stuff coasting to success, so this was in some ways a movie that was made for me and while I liked the film a lot I will say there were a couple of things keeping it from being as funny as it could have been.

I think one of those was that Beanie Feldstein’s character is painted a bit too broadly as a stuck up bully a bit too quickly and you sort of see her character arc and eventual conflict with Kaitlyn Dever coming from a mile away.  A version of the film where you really come to like the character before realizing her dark side might have been a bit more effective especially since Dever’s character is rather adorable throughout, making the contrast in likability between the two really stand out.  Aside from that I just felt like the jokes just weren’t quite as consistent as they could have been.  Parts of it are extremely funny but other stretches are a bit short on laughs, and not necessarily intentionally so.  In some ways first time director Olivia Wilde seems a bit more adept at the coming of age character-based material than with the comedy and I would be curious to see what a version of this which isn’t trying so hard to be the Gen Z Superbad would have been like.  Ultimately though the film’s strengths are much more prominent than its occasional shortcomings and it proves to be one of the better made if not necessarily funniest films of its kind.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Brightburn(5/26/2019)

The James Gunn produced horror/superhero movie Brightburn certainly had an intriguing premise: copy the famous Superman origin story, almost to the point of copyright infringement, but posit as a “what if” that instead of being a kid predisposed to truth, justice, and the American way he ended up being more like a creepy Columbine kid who ended up using his powers for evil.  I’ve heard people describe this as a refutation of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, but if anything the movie would seem to be vindication of the strict disciplinarian tendencies of the father from that movie because the loosey goosey millennial parenting on display here is plainly the wrong approach to raising a kid who’s faster than a locomotive.  Granted, the movie basically lets the parents here off the hook by making it so they weren’t aware of the kid’s powers (despite knowing he was an alien) and it also basically sidesteps the psychology of how the kid is driven mad by power by essentially making that the result of his communicating with his alien pod.  As it played out it became pretty clear that the movie was less interested in the idea of how these powers would corrupt the mind of this kid than it was in coming up with the gory ways in which the powers would be used for evil.  That focus isn’t entirely without its rewards, the scenes where the kid goes full supervillain are creatively gory and entertaining, but the movie isn’t really “scary” per se and I feel like the movie could have done a lot more with this premise than it does and that makes it pretty disappointing.

**1/2 out of Five