Jurassic World Dominion(6/15/2022)

I wasn’t expecting much from Jurassic World Dominion: I had very little nice to say about the previous Jurassic World movies or for that matter the other two sequels made from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  So why did I go to see it?  I dunno, I guess I’m just obsessed with being on time with the discourse these days.  So my expectations for this were about as low as possible and yet still this somehow managed to be even worse than I expected, easily a series low.  The last film ended with our “heroes” psychotically unleashing these genetically altered prehistoric monsters on the world, making them indirectly responsible for untold numbers of deaths.  Somehow we’re still supposed to like them now because the Chris Pratt character has some deranged bond with a raptor and because the Bryce Dallas Howard character… actually I’m not sure why you’re supposed to care about her.  Anyway there may have been an interesting way to address the new post-Dinosaur status quo of this world, but this film mostly just willfully ignores a lot of the challenges of such a situation and just kind of hopes you don’t question things like how large and presumably cold blooded reptiles are going to survive in cold climates (and no, the films don’t get conveniently pretend these things were actually warm blooded birds the whole time now, they chose to make them reptiles and they have to stick to that).  The world of the film seems oddly disinterested in wiping out this invasive species and instead suggests large portions of the population would view these things through the preservationist eye one would apply to native species… which they aren’t.

Perhaps knowing that no one gives a damn about the Pratt and Dallas Howard characters the film also brings back the cast of the original Jurassic Park, but truth be told those characters were always somewhat thin archetypes and whatever depth they ever had has been stripped from them here.  Ian Malcolm’s pseudo-philosophical points of view have basically gone in whatever direction the series has needed them to go throughout this series and this film doesn’t even try to put smart things in his mouth and just kind of assumes Goldblumian snark will suffice.  As for Alan Grant, the film basically ignores his character arc from the first film (in which he grew to become fond of children and domesticity over the course of his adventure), and is made to be a childless bachelor basically identical to his previous self all these years later.  And Ellie Sattler, while still smart and feisty, still lacks a terribly strong personality beyond that.

Both groups of protagonists in this film, which by the way has a truly unwieldy ensemble, ultimately find themselves in the same place: a “wildlife preserve” run by an evil tech bro who looks like Tim Cook who wants to use these dinosaurs for various evil ends.  One of those ends is the creation of mega locusts who will wipe out all crops not sold by their company… which I can maybe imagine being an interesting idea if given more care and focus, but it seems absolutely ludicrous and out of place here.  I should also mention that, while all the Jurassic Park films are rooted in pseudo-science, this one has two interconnected sub-plots rooted in the absolutely ludicrous notion that a living organism can have its DNA altered through an injection, a notion that defies the basic function of how genetics works and is eerily similar to some particularly unhinged conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine.  I don’t doubt that that particular parallel was unintentional but I think it does speak to how little this movie cares about science far beyond any kind of reasonable artistic license when compared to the legitimate science fiction of the original film.

Anyway, this wildlife preserve concept (which is really closer to just being a villain lair with dinosaurs), is particularly disappointing in that it more or less abandons the “what if dinosaurs were in the real world” concept from the first half in place of the more familiar territory for this series of a dinosaur zoo that breaks down as “life finds a way.”  But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the film would give up the challenge of doing something new like exploring dinosaurs in the real world given that it basically exists to pander to series fans.  This is the same reason Grant, Malcolm, and Sadler haven’t changed a bit in thirty years besides now having greying hair: they’re only here for a nostalgia hit.  The people at Universal clearly saw that bringing back legacy characters for a super team worked for the Fast and the Furious series and decided to do the same thing but without bothering to do it with the same kind of charm.  The film also feels the need to recreate all sorts of other moments from the first film like having Dilophosauruses kill off a villain and having Ian Malcom still focused on using signal flares as an anti-dinosaur tool and women being sent to reboot a facility’s power.  The film also continues the series’ very strange interest in anthropomorphizing the T-rex into some kind of “good guy” dinosaur we’re supposed to root for in fights with other dinosaurs that, despite supposedly being bigger, are never as interesting.

This is truly one of the laziest movies I’ve seen at this budget level.  There are some serviceable action scenes to be found here and there are occasional moments like a mid-film car chase with raptors that suggests a certain gonzo B-movie energy that could have been used here more extensively but they’re undercut by the film’s two and a half hour running time and frequent desire to try to recapture the John Williams scored awe that Spielberg captured with that first film.  You can’t pretend to be in the lineage of something like that when you have a script that’s this willfully stupid.  But on some level it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow doesn’t seem to think he can be bothered to give us something better.  The other two Jurassic World movies also sucked but still managed to set box office records, so why try?  He knows people aren’t going to mind that he recycles ideas from the previous films, in fact he knows they’ll celebrate that.  He knows he doesn’t need to evolve and age his characters and will actually be rewarded for making them as much like what you’ve seen before.  And he knows that he doesn’t need to put even the slightest bit of effort in making the science sound plausible because he knows everyone who questions it will be treated like a killjoy.  This movie sucks, but it’s probably the movie the cinemagoers of this era deserve.  And I was stupid enough to pay to see it because the hype cycle told me to, so I’m probably part of the problem too.

*1/2 out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 5/7/2022

No Exit (4/26/2022)

No Exit was supposed to be a 20th Century Fox release but like a lot of pre-merger movies from that studio under a certain budget it’s now being dumped onto streaming, which I think should annoy me but if I’m being honest I can’t say this is something I’d ever be terribly interested in seeing in theaters and home release is probably right for it.  The film is not an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play of the same name, though I suppose if you squint you can find similar themes of flawed people stuck together in a hotbox, but really this is just a thriller plain and simple.  The film follows a woman who finds herself in the middle of nowhere when a snowstorm shuts down the roads and she’s forced to hunker down in a visitor center with a handful of other motorists.  There, she notices a young girl tied up in the back of a parked car and from there needs to figure out who the kidnapper is and how to stop them and save the girl.  So, it’s a bit of a high concept film but as high concepts go it’s not terribly novel, and while there are some decent performances here by people like Havana Rose Liu and Danny Ramirez, there isn’t really any star power in the film’s small ensemble beyond Dennis Haysbert and Dale Dickey.  They mystery also resolves itself really early on and becomes more of a cat and mouse thing, but not necessarily one that’s delivering much you haven’t seen.  There are some good moments here and there and it’s reasonably well made within its small scope and modest budget, but I can’t say anything about it really excels or makes it standout either.  It will pass the time if you’re bored, might be something good to watch on an airplane or something.

*** out of Five

Deep Water (5/1/2022)

I’ve noticed lately that the glut of “effects driven franchise movies” coming out of Hollywood these days has led to a sort of rose tinted nostalgia for the trashy movies the studios used to put out in previous eras and I think that’s mostly a mistake.  Both Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay put out movies this year and while neither were exactly embraced with open arms there was an odd nostalgia in the air for both mens’ careers that certainly feels odd given that these same critics (rightly) had nothing nice to say about their past work.  It’s like reminiscing about Wal-Mart in the age of Amazon.  And a similar things seems to be happening in regards to the “erotic thriller” genre in the wake of director Adrian Lyne’s return to cinema after twenty years with his Ben Affleck starring erotic thriller Deep Water.  Do not let nostalgia fool you, with very few exceptions the wave of erotic thrillers we got in the 80s and early 90s were actually terrible.  Many of them were basically glorified softcore pornography and they deservedly won Razzie after Razzie when they were new and by and large his association with the genre kind of ran Lyne’s career into the ground and its sad that rather than move on he’s decided to return to this tainted well with his return.  The film involves Ben Affleck playing the husband to a woman played by Ana de Armas, who has apparently grown tired of the Affleck character’s skills in the bedroom and has convinced him to let her sleep with other men… you get the distinct impression that even if Affleck has allowed this he isn’t really okay with it, and he becomes something of a suspect once some of the men she’s had affairs with turn up dead.

So, obviously this couple is decidedly not opening up their marriage in a healthy and open way and you get the distinct impression that they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by consulting some online resources and maybe arranging for the de Armas to do her liaisons at a hotel or something instead of cucking Affleck in his own house.  But this is an erotic thriller, of course it’s not interested in the concept of healthy relationship dynamics being a possibility, it’s instead looking to display how everyone’s life is going to go to shit in the most salacious way possible if they diverge from god sanctioned monogamy.  Even compared to the erotic thrillers of old, however, this is a little weak.  Generally speaking those movies at least delivered on the legitimized skinimax thrills they were made for, and while this one isn’t exactly sexless it sure puts a lot of its liaisons off-screen and rarely goes below the belt in its gaze.  And the way the story develops is just the stupidest thing.  Whatever mystery it sets up is resolved in ways that are fairly anticlimactic and it ends with a very strange car chase.  Also there’s some weird stuff with snails that goes nowhere.  To make things worse you can’t help but compare this to David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which also featured Affleck and actually managed to take a salacious marriage story like this and do something infinitely more intriguing and well executed with it, by contrast this feels like a Dollar Store imitation.  Whatever affections people have for this genre and this movie are misplaced, it’s a total turkey.

*1/2 out of Five

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (5/3/2022)

If you read about a story in the news you can probably bet there will be a documentary about it sometime in the next five years and this would be the documentary about the Boeing 737 Max scandal.  I remember hearing about the initial pair of crashes that set off this crisis at Boeing but it seems the whole affair kind of fell off my radar after that, which is unfortunate because the findings of the ensuing investigation are very worth knowing about.  In fact the evidence certainly seems pretty damning.  The movie makes a pretty effective case that when Boeing started falling behind Airbus they tried to solve it with a merger that ultimately left them very beholden to shareholders and, tale as old as time, they started cutting corners in order to satisfy Wall Street’s demands and this finally blew up in their face in the form of the 737 Max, which had a faulty system they tried to cover up in order to avoid additional regulatory scrutiny.  It’s pretty sickening.  The movie itself is a pretty straightforward talking head doc building a narrative against the company and as the title implies it’s kind of just presenting the case against without the “case for,” though unless this thing is really manipulating facts I’m not sure the is much of a case for the company to make.  I guess the one thing that seems to be missing here is a way forward.  Boeing it too big to fail and in the grand scheme of things I don’t think they necessarily should in much the way I don’t necessarily think the world would have been a better place if Ford had folded after their Pinto scandal.  So what is an appropriate way for a company to move forward from something like this?  I don’t have the answer to that and I’m not sure if the film does either.

*** out of Five

Windfall (5/6/2022)

Windfall would be the second “limited cast straight-to-streaming thriller” I’ve seen recently, a trend that might have been the result of pandemic era shooting conditions.  This one is set at a remote Southern California vacation home of a tech CEO (Jesse Plemmons), who unexpectedly arrives at this home with his wife (Lily Collins) to find a squatter (Jason Segel) robbing the place.  Panicking, the robber takes the two of them hostage and there’s a standoff of sorts as they wait for a cash delivery to arrive that the robber intends to run away with.  From there it becomes clear that the CEO’s marriage to his wife is rocky and the process of being held hostage together kind of makes them snipe at each other while in captivity.  So, it’s kind of like The Ref but played straight instead of as a comedy.  It’s a setup with some potential but I don’t think they really pull it off here.  The CEO is of course an asshole, but the film seems to be trying to draw some kind of equivalence between him and the violent criminal hostage taker that I don’t think really holds together on that level and I especially don’t believe the borderline Stockholm Syndrome that the wife is supposed to go through, which is pretty key to the movie and neither the script nor Lily Collins performance really sell it.  There’s some interesting elements here and I enjoyed Plemmons and Segel and also Collins when she isn’t being asked to do the impossible but it’s not really enough and the minimalism of the setup doesn’t have quite the novelty that I think the creators assumed it did.

** out of Five

Turning Red (5/7/2022)

As I’ve said a number of times recently I’m a bit of a defender of latter day Pixar, which I think gets held to a bit of an unfair standard by critics, so it’s interesting that their latest film Turning Red is their first film in a while where I’m actually less enthused than the critical consensus.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot here to like.  The film looks at a thirteen year old girl from a Chinese immigrant family who suddenly turns into a human sized red panda one morning and learns that this is a family curse and that she needs to just endure for a month before it can be exorcised through a ritual when the moon is in a specific alignment.  The film’s director, Domee Shi, has been very vocal about the fact that the film (minus the whole red panda thing) is drawing from her own childhood memories and the conflicts she had with her mother, who I think would qualify as what they call a “Tiger Mom.”  The film does a good job or really putting you in this protagonist’s perspective and you can definitely see why her mother’s behavior would seem rather mortifying to her.  The problem though is that I don’t think the red panda part holds together even a little as a metaphor.  Many have viewed these transformations as being about anxiety over puberty, which makes sense initially but with very few exceptions puberty isn’t something you can decide to stop or not stop at a certain point and it’s also not something that’s exclusive to any one family.  I suppose this could be more of a statement about the Chinese traditionalist family demanding people like this character repress their sexual urges, which is a much less comfortable thing to try to talk about critically for a variety of reasons and is kind of a weird thing to make a Pixar movie about.  There’s probably something there but I don’t think it works cleanly and I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the film’s chaotic kaiju inspired ending.  In general I think I would have liked it better if it was a straight coming of age story with no red panda hijinks but at that point why are you making a Pixar animation?  There’s enough in the film to make it worth a watch but I think it’s kind of a confused movie in a lot of ways.

*** out of Five

Top Gun: Maverick(5/29/2022)

The idea of a sequel to Top Gun getting made in 2022 is in many ways something that should evoke laughter.  It’s a cheesy relic of the 80s, one that seemingly clashes with ever modern sensibility on the book no less, being dug up and brushed off in order to satiate a Hollywood that’s intent on leaving no franchise unexploited and no vein of nostalgia untapped.  And yet, the whole film world including several relatively highbrow film critics instead seemed really excited for the film and ready to embrace it whole heartedly.  Why was that?  It certainly wasn’t because of its director Joseph Kosinski, a filmmaker who also arguably bungled one “lega-sequel” with his debut film Tron: Legacy, who would have had a hard time filling the shoes of the late Tony Scott in the minds of many even if he didn’t have such a shaky track-record.  Instead this optimism mostly had to do with the film’s star and producer Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, who in the eyes of many critics is having something of a renaissance as of late, and he hasn’t done it through taking on more challenging roles or expanding his range the way other “sanced” actors like Matthew McConaughey or Michael Keaton have.  Instead he seems to have doubled and tripled down on making action movies in which he plays characters that are variations on his usual star persona, but through some combination of getting publicity for doing his own stunts and making blockbusters that are targeted at slightly older audiences he really seems to have people eating it up.  And that goodwill has of course hit something of a peak with the belated 2022 release of his sequel 35 years in the making: Top Gun: Maverick.

As Top Gun: Maverick opens with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) still a captain in the Navy (no clue how he got around the military’s Up or Out system) and acting as a test pilot for some sort of futuristic stealth fighter.  Long story short he ends up ejecting from and blowing that prototype plane up while doing something dangerous and disobedient and as is typical of this franchise is rewarded for this insubordination with a new posting by having him return to the SFTI program at Naval Air Station Miramar, AKA “Top Gun.”  This time though it’s not just about routine training: he’s there to train a squadron to go on a real life borderline suicide mission in an unnamed rogue state (that’s probably Iran) involving a high speed flight through a canyon before dropping a guided bomb on a small target (yes, this is suspiciously similar to the trench run at the end of Star Wars).  Among the pilots in the running to go on this mission is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former co-pilot “Goose,” who died in the previous film.  Rooster resents Maverick for a variety of reasons but Maverick does think Rooster has potential as a pilot, as do the rest of the candidates, but the demands of this mission are extreme and it remains to be seen if it’s even possible.  Also Maverick starts a tangential romance with a bar owner named Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

I should probably say up front that I’m not a fan of the original Top Gun, a position I did not think was controversial among film critics until the hype for this movie seemed to retcon it in their eyes.  Until now that movie (which holds a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes) seemed to mostly be remembered as a jingoistic advertisement for the military that doubled as a hyper masculine power trip soaked in unintentional homoeroticism.  I re-watched the movie a little while ago and my opinion of it wasn’t really changed.  To give credit where its due, Tony Scott’s visual style was innovative in its way but to my eyes this influence was not a positive one and the act of making Hollywood films look like feature length Gillette commercials is not something to be celebrated.  As a story though I think it’s a dumb celebration of the stupidest kinds of bravado and that its protagonist is an absolute dick who is largely unredeemed of his worst instincts by the film’s end.  To be blunt “more of the same” is not what I would have wanted out of a sequel.

Is “more of the same” what I got out of Top Gun: Maverick?  Well, yes and no.  The movie that this most reminds me of in both good and bad ways is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, another “legacyquel” to a franchise that’s been dormant.  Like that movie this is pretty in touch with what series fans are looking for and is generally an audience pleasing ride but it’s also a shallow nostalgic pander-fest that practically serves as a plot point by plot point remake of the film it’s supposed to be a follow-up to.  Like the original it starts with Maverick doing something reckless which leads him to Miramar, where he conducts some training exercises while pursuing a plot-tangential romance with a local, feuds with a fellow pilot he distrusts, plays some beach sports, matures slightly after someone dies making things more real, before covering himself in glory in a real world dogfight where he and the pilot he’s feuding with come to respect each other.  Now to be fair, unlike The Force Awakens, there haven’t already been five sequels and various spinoffs of Top Gun, so this reheat does feel a tad more fresh than J.J. Abrams’ slightly less long awaited sequel does.  But on the other hand, the original Star Wars is a movie that’s really good and is ripe for further sequelization by its nature whereas Top Gun maybe isn’t.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimate improvements to be found in this sequel, which for the record I do consider an improvement over the first film.  Maverick is still sort of an insubordinate jackass here but he has mellowed and become more palatable with age.  The film has also of course benefited from improvements to technology and filming techniques which greatly expands on what they’re able to do with the aerial stunts and dogfight sequences.  But perhaps most importantly the fact that the film is structured around preparing for a mission does a lot for it and makes the film’s action finale feel more like something the film has been building towards rather than the random non-sequitur we got at the end of the first film.  That said, as impressive as the film’s final sequence is on some technical levels, it’s also completely ridiculous.  Even if you can set aside the fact that it’s depicting an open act of war against this unnamed country that’s probably Iran that would almost certainly spark a larger military conflict and that it’s just an entirely contrived situation that seems to have been reverse engineered in order to give these pilots a very specific set of challenges, the whole scene ends up having a second half that just dives head first into silliness in a way I find borderline indefensible.

Now, I’ve focused a lot on the negative here even though this is a movie I do basically consider to be fun watch that I essentially enjoyed, which is partly because I feel some obligation to push back on the outsized positivity that surrounds this fundamentally stupid movie.  If there is a message to be gained from the movie it’s by looking at it as a sort of allegory for Tom Cruise and his Hollywood career being as it’s about a guy who is supposed to have aged out of the position he’s in despite clearly still having the necessary skills to do his work effectively.  That’s certainly a little smarter than the first movie’s message, which basically amounted to “Tom Cruise looks cool and the military is a playground for him and his bros to play with expensive toys.”  But much as the movie is fundamentally uninterested in whether Maverick’s clear skills are being put towards a conflict that’s worth fighting I think Cruise and his fans should maybe focus a bit more on getting Cruise to put his own skills towards movies that are interesting beyond his own daredevil antics and by and large I don’t think Top Gun: Maverick is.

*** out of Five

The Best Animated Feature Gauntlet – Part 2

This is part of an ongoing series looking at the recipients of nominations for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  A more detailed explanation can be found at the beginning of part 1.

Surf’s Up (2007)

Ah, the penguin craze of the mid-2000s, what a stupid stupid fad.  Coming off the inexplicable box office success of the blockbuster 2005 documentary March of the Penguins it was determined that the public had penguin fever and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to exploit this supposed fascination.  They even made a big budget CGI animated film on the topic; it was called Happy Feet and it was directed by George Miller of all people and it was very forgettable.  Somehow that fucking thing won the Oscar for Best Animated feature for 2006 and was one of the most “you had to be there” wins in the category’s history.  One would think that that stupid-ass movie (and its sequel) would be enough to satisfy the public’s hunger for animated movies about arctic waterfowl but apparently it wasn’t and the next year Sony Pictures Animation gave us yet another one… and in this one the penguins were surfers for some reason.  Now, like a lot of narratives that whole recounting is a bit simplistic and ignores the fact that big animated movies like this actually take years to produce to completion; both of these movies were almost certainly being made before March of the Penguins became a surprise box office success and all of these movies proximity to one another may well have been one big coincidence… but that’s certainly not what it looked like to outside observers and by the time Surf’s Up came out in the June of 2007 it certainly looked to most casual observers like the lamest of Johnny-come-lately bandwagon jumpers.  That is unfortunate because, despite outward appearances, Surf’s Up is almost certainly the better of the mid-2000s animated movies about penguins. 

What differentiates this one, aside from the surfing is that it is a computer animated mockumentary, essentially a very large budget parody of extreme sports documentaries like Riding Giants or Step Into Liquid.  It would be like if a major animation studio in a couple of years decided to make a parody of Free Solo starring an octopus.  This is not exactly a great idea for a movie but it is an idea for one, which was more than I was expecting and the film does take its gimmick fairly seriously and manages to be pretty spot on in its adherence to certain sports doc clichés that aren’t necessarily super obvious to people who don’t watch a lot of them.  Key to all of this is actually a pretty dedicated voice performance by Shia LaBeouf who makes this central penguin sound like an authentically withdrawn and mumbling teenager who’s trying to put up a tough façade, which fits well with this mockumentary gimmick and works better than the brand of exaggerated bumbling awkwardness we normally get from teenage characters in these movies.  So that’s an element I find interesting but I also don’t want to oversell this thing.  The animation is only okay, the story would feel more like a straightforward set of clichés if not for the mockumentary format, and there are comedic moments and soundtrack selections that are pretty lame.  Were it not for very low expectations this would not standout as much of anything and at the Oscars it was clearly a distant third behind Ratatouille and Persepolis and is probably not worth revisiting if you’re not doing some sort of retrospective of Oscar nominated animated films.
*** out of Five

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (AKA The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!) was the feature length return to the stop-motion style that made them famous after a probably misguided foray into computer animation.  In 2006 they followed up their Academy Award winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with a film called Flushed Away, which took models that were designed in the Aardman style but were then translated into computer animation instead of rendered through stop-motion.  The idea was presumably to bring the Aardman charm and humor to the screen but eliminate the arduous stop motion process and be more in line with what kids were coming to expect from their Hollywood cartoons.  The movie got some respectful reviews at the time but it didn’t light up the box office and it’s not very well remembered today and the decision to switch mediums certainly strikes me as a bad idea given that they basically sacrificed their signature craft which made them stand out.  They followed that up with another computer animated film called Arthur Christmas, which also wasn’t a disaster but also didn’t really make much more than their stop-motion films do and on larger budgets and ever since then they’ve largely stuck to their stop-motion roots.

This is not to say that The Pirates! Band of Misfits is devoid of computer animation as they do incorporate it in some places, namely in the ocean that the pirate ship sails on, but for the most part it’s nicely elaborate stop motion like we expect from the studio.  In the UK the film is called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, which is the title of the book the film is adapted from, the first in a series of books with titles that all end with “in an adventure with [insert historical group]” which kind of makes them sound educational, which is probably what the international distributors were trying to avoid (I think similar decision-making was involved in changing the title of the first Harry Potter book).  The thing is these books are not really educational, it seems like their whole premise is that they bring in 19th century historical figures like Napoleon, or Karl Marx, or in the case of this one Charles Darwin, but treat them in ways that has less respect for historical accuracy than Inglourious Basterds.  In fact the whole premise of the series is completely anachronistic as they have these pirates existing in the 19th century when pirates as we know them were largely the product of the 17th and early 18th century.  To give you a hint of how little of a fuck these books give, this one ends with the pirates fighting a katana wielding Queen Victoria on her borderline steampunk personal ocean liner.

Beyond the historical playfulness and the animation style I’m not sure there’s really a lot going on here.  The story is something of a workplace comedy on board a pirate ship bring run by a rather inept captain who renders the pirates kind of harmless through his bumbling.  There’s a goofy story here where the captain discovers his parrot is actually a dodo bird that has somehow survived extinction and essentially becomes valuable McGuffin in a tug of war between Darwin and Victoria, but describing it like that probably doesn’t convey how little the film takes any of this seriously, which it doesn’t at all.  It’s very much a “romp” more than any kind of story with real takeaways, but it’s not an unenjoyable one and there is some inherent value in Aardman’s mastery of this Claymation medium and this one lets them let loose with that on a larger more widescreen scale in a lot of ways.  There’s generally something of a ceiling on how enthusiastic I’m likely to get about an Aardman film, it’s a studio that largely gets by on charm moreso than any kind of real substance but they’re in good form here.
*** out of Five

Shrek 2 (2004)

The Best Animated Feature Academy Award has proven to be a pretty durable fixture after two decades despite a somewhat shaky beginning and no matter how long it lasts it’s probably never going to live down the fact that they gave their inaugural trophy out to one of the most rancid cancers eating away at popular culture: Shrek.  Good lord do I hate fucking Shrek.  It’s a movie that’s dumb on it’s very surface but what’s really galling about it is that it’s a movie that’s kind of like a dumb person’s idea of what satire and parody is supposed to be.  It’s a series of very obvious jokes about fairy tale archetypes that are maybe a rung or two above what one might expect from the Friedberg and Seltzer school of spoof movies, and yet the damn thing seemed to make an insane amount of money and was by and large critically tolerated.  What’s worse the movie seemed to usher in a certain dumb attitude that has pervaded mainstream animation and pop culture more widely.  As critic Scott Tobias put it last year in an excellent take-down on the film’s twentieth anniversary: “it encouraged a destructive, know-it-all attitude toward the classics that made any earnest engagement with them seem like a waste of time.”  Somehow that piece managed to make Tobias the “main character” of Twitter that day as waves of deluded dipshits accused him of being a contrarian troll as if this piece of shit movie is somehow above criticism, a whole generation blinded by what I can only assume is pure nostalgia into thinking this movie deserves even the slightest bit of respect.

Now, to be fair I haven’t seen the original Shrek since shortly after its original release, when I would have been about fourteen and that wasn’t necessarily a period in my life when I was at my most open minded.  Turning on the film’s box office record breaking (and Oscar nominated) sequel I was ready to accept it if it turned out the franchise actually had more going for it than I remembered.  Nope, if anything this was actually even worse than I expected.  The film isn’t remotely funny.  I remember the first movie at least having a couple of chuckle inducing moments but I watched this thing stone faced the whole way through.  And as a piece of storytelling this is largely a lazy retread of the first movie where Shrek becomes self-conscious about whether Fiona can really love an ugly dude like him, something they seemingly got past in the last movie.  What’s more Fiona does not actually say or do much of anything to give him this impression, it’s mostly something he intuits from her parents being snooty assholes to him and much of the film’s plot could have been circumvented if he had just had a conversation with this person who is supposedly his true love.  From there we don’t get much else of value.  I have no idea why Puss and Boots became some beloved character outside of this, he’s a total nothing of a character and the bad side characters from the first film are shoehorned into this contrary to any real logic.  If there was ever anything remotely valuable or clever about this story it was used up in the first movie, this second one has basically nothing new to offer on top of it.  Terrible movie, terrible franchise, I hope to never have to see three or four.
* out of Five

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)

When the Best Animated Feature category was introduced in 2001 pundits thought it’s inaugural lineup would be pretty predictable.  Shrek and Monsters Inc were pretty much guaranteed to get in but the third slot was a bit less clear but most critics thought it would be filled by Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, an animated indie for adults that would represent the artier side of the medium.  While movies like that would go on to have a better shot in future years, the Academy clearly wasn’t ready to “go there” on year one.  Instead they filled that slot with, of all things, a glorified pilot for an upcoming Nickelodeon show called Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.  Some think this snub happened because they didn’t want to muddy the waters with an R-rated movie, others think the animators voting on the nomination did not view the rotoscoping work in Linklater’s film to be “true animation.”  But really there’s no excuse because even if they didn’t want to reward Linklaters film they certainly had other options.  For one thing, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was right there.  Nominating that would have been a nice bone thrown to the modern face of traditional animation and there certainly would have been symbolic value in pitting Dreamworks, Pixar, and Disney against each other in the first of these categories.  And if they didn’t want to do that, there were some solid anime choices out there in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Metropolis and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.  Hell, even the misbegotten bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within would have even been a more interesting choice than fucking Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius

So, looking at the film was it actually any good?  Of course not, it’s barely watchable.  I have no idea what the Academy animation branch was smoking when they nominated it.  I’m not going to sit here and recount all of its flaws in detail but to be brief: the animation is wretched both in terms of technology and design, the story is absolutely loopy, there’s this weird streak of casual childhood misogyny in it that’s treated as a running gag, it is ostensibly about scientific genius and yet it casually ignores anything resembling scientific accuracy, and the main character is probably the least sympathetic or interesting person in the whole movie. However, I would really feel silly taking time out of my day to write any kind of review of this thing in earnest because, frankly, this is not a movie that was ever supposed to be watched by a thirty four year old man over twenty years after it was made.  This isn’t a family movie; it’s a children’s movie of the kind that exists to get five year olds to shut up for five or so years and give their parents some sanity.  It was made for half of Shrek’s budget and a quarter of Monster’s Inc’s budget and it was always kind of supposed to be disposable trash. Railing against it would be like railing against, like, The Paw Patrol Movie or something.  I’ll save my anger for the mindless Academy voters who elevated into a position that suggests that it should be judged like a real movie by adult observers, which is a level of scrutiny it never pretended it was going to stand up to.  I’m honestly not sure why they even submitted it, it certainly didn’t help the film’s reputation, though I guess it got someone twenty years later to rent it from Netflix so maybe it worked out for them.
½ out of Five

Puss in Boots (2011)

I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it when I reviewed Shrek 2 (because I knew this movie was in my future) but watching it I was absolutely baffled that the Puss in Boots character from that movie was considered to be some kind of beloved standout character.  Why?  There was absolutely nothing to him.  The original Puss in Boots fairytale is about a feline who uses his wiles and trickery in order to raise the social standing of his master and thus himself, and the character in that movies doesn’t resemble that even a little.  Instead he’s basically Zorro, a decision I guess was made to capitalize on the fact that they got Antonio Banderas to voice the character (even though it had been a good six years since he starred in The Mask of Zorro and that movie’s pop culture footprint does not seem that large).  The whole one joke (if that) character seems to be predicated on the incorrect belief that seeing a cat speak in a Spanish accent is somehow inherently funny and after the character is quickly foiled in his inept assassination attempt on Shrek he basically doesn’t do anything besides hang around with the characters as they go on their journey and since Banderas is not a comedian it doesn’t really lead to any additional attempts at comedy.  But I guess people ended up liking this character for some reason because he did not go away, in fact they gave him an entire spin-off in the form of the 2011 film Puss in Boots.

In a lot of ways this spin-off does feel different from the Shrek movies and mostly for the better.  It takes the fairytale world of the Shrek movies a little (and I do mean a little) more seriously than those movies do and it dials down the anachronisms a bit.  You would not, for example, see people watching televisions in this one and it’s less interested in being a parade of random fairy tale cameos.  It’s also a more modern film and the animation generally holds up a bit better and there’s more of an emphasis on adventure here that occasionally lends itself to some decent set pieces.  So on paper all of that is an improvement, and indeed it is, but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have plenty of problems of its own and the biggest of them is that it still stars this version of Puss in Boots who remains a total snore.  In Shrek 2 this character is largely defined by his ineptitude and this movie is never quite able to decide whether they want to retcon him into a slightly more competent adventurer (thus turning a one-joke character into a zero joke character) or kind of keep him bumbling.  The film takes forever to get going because it wants to give a whole backstory for this cat which isn’t interesting and which no one asked for, or at least no one should have asked for.  When it does get going it mostly just feels like a standard animated movie, but one with a boring protagonist and in a silly and unappealing world.  If it’s better than the movies it sprung from its only because the bar is so low and it only deserves so much credit for getting over it.
*1/2 out of Five


Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

I’ve been writing reviews for almost fifteen years now and I don’t have many regrets about any of my reviews.  There are reviews that maybe could have deserved an extra half star here or there and a few that I maybe could have removed a half star or two from, but in broad strokes I think I’ve generally come down on the side I stand by in most of my reviews.  But among the ones I might want to take back is my April 2015 review of Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, which I gave a light three stars to and considered going down to two and a half on and never got close to ranking high among my favorites that year.  I think my issue with that movie was that I got a little too focused on the robotics of it all, focused too much on its questions of how human artificial intelligence can be which I find to a somewhat tired theme, and kind of missed the forest for the trees: namely everything the movie is trying to say about very human issues like misogyny and power struggles.  Eventually I’ll finally give the movie a re-watch and figure out for certain.  Since then I guess you could say I “made it up” to Garland by providing strong praise for his follow-up feature Annihilation, but that movie was a book adaptation rather than something directly from Garland’s mind.  By contrast his new film Men, with its similarly confined setting and themes of patriarchal oppression, feels more like his direct follow-up to Ex Machina.

Men is set largely at a house in the fictional English village of Cotson where a woman named Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has retreated to after the death of her husband James Marlowe (Paapa Essiedu).  It is revealed through a series of flashbacks that Harper has reason to have very mixed feelings about this husband’s passing as he appears to have been a rather toxic personality who became abusive in his last days and his eventual death was intertwined with a moment of particular toxicity.  Harper has rented this house from a guy named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who tours the house with a very quietly concealed condescension but leaves her with nothing to be terribly worried about.  But then she spots a naked man standing in the distance and, unnerved, returns to the house.  Not long after she spots this same mysterious man standing outside her house trying to break in.

So we have this divisive movie that kind of feels like a horror movie but isn’t one, that’s set in a house out in a rural area and is in many ways a two hander with a male and female actor, and also contains some disturbing imagery and who’s success is highly dependent on how willing you are to decipher its possibly religious symbolism that feels at once obvious but also cryptic… yeah this movie kind of reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in a number of ways.  That comparison might scare some people off but personally I loved that movie so it’s not meant as a criticism.  Where that movie seemed to be a sort of elaborate metaphor for the bible and the rise and fall of human civilization, this movie (if you couldn’t tell from the title) is meant to be more of a meditation on the topic of male violence against women and misogyny in general.

The film at some points hints at being a folk horror movie but I think that’s a red herring, this is at its heart a highly psychological horror film.  Harper is recovering from an act of unquestionable domestic abuse and is trying to come to terms with everything that influenced that behavior.  The various demonic “men” she encounters in the village are in some ways meant to be reflective of some form of the patriarchy whether it’s the raw sexual aggression of the naked man, the condescending ally who doesn’t believe her about what’s going on, the entitled and possibly red-pilled teenager, the clergyman who seems nice but ultimately advances toxic ideas, or the largely ineffective police officer.  It then all culminates in an ending where these entities start to literally give birth to each other in a moment of outlandish body horror which is perhaps making a point of how this misogyny gets passed down through the ages or perhaps more directly it’s trying to show how all these toxic concepts and patterns are ultimately what “birthed” the sexist violence that existed in her husband.

That finale, I’d say is probably one of the weaker elements of the film.  I think I get what he was going for and the visuals Garland employs are certainly bold and transgressive but the CGI being employed is not perfect and the imagery its working with is outlandish to the point of almost being comical rather than truly disturbing.  There are some gory moments in the movie that are handled better including one really nasty moment involving a knife and a hand, but in general people coming to this looking for a normal scary horror movie are probably not going to get what they’re looking for.  I’m also not sure that the choice to have Rory Kinnear play all the male characters here aside from the husband really paid off.  It works alright for some of the characters but in the case of the teenage character it involved using some visual effects the movie wasn’t really able to pull off and landed somewhere in the uncanny valley.  But the movie is not without some solid atmosphere and filmmaking elsewhere.  The village and the house are appropriately creepy areas without really having anything overtly scary about them and the sound team along with composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow give the film an appropriately moody soundscape.

So now, seven years since writing that Ex Machina review I kind of regret I’m once again faced with an Alex Garland movie where I’m not quite sure where to land.  Part of me wants to avoid my previous mistake and give this the benefit of the doubt that it would grow on me, but I feel like I have more grounded comparisons to make this time around and frankly I do think this is actually a lesser movie than Ex Machina even if it’s more bold in its own way.  In some ways I feel like it’s more productive to go back to my mother! comparison.  This is more focused than that movie and less obtuse in its symbolism and purpose, but also certainly less ambitious and cinematically it doesn’t stick the landing as well.  I guess ultimately I’m going to have to fall back on my overall philosophy that, to a point, I’d rather see something try something bold and stumble a little than coast on easy mode.  This is definitely better than your average horror movie and I’m more happy I saw it than a lot of other movies even if there are aspects to it that feel a little “extra.”

***1/2 out of Five