Spider-Man: No Way Home(12/27/2021)

I’ve had my ups and my downs with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but without exception I’ve seen every one of their movies in the theaters and while I haven’t seen all of them opening night I almost always went to see them within the first couple of days of release.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but generally speaking I’m pretty stoked to see them, especially in the last couple of years.  That has been somewhat tested this year, though not really by my choosing.  It took me six days of waiting in order to see Shang-Chi and Eternals, which probably doesn’t seem very long to normal people but for someone trying to remain in “the discourse” that’s quite the pain.  And the reason for these delays is, of course, COVID.  With the virus floating around it just seemed irresponsible to go to these movies while the crowds are too big to maintain reasonable social distancing.  Fortunately the crowds for those movies did thin out enough to slip into weekday afternoon screenings shortly after release and not have to deal with crowds that were too out of control.  That was not the case with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  The movie released right at the onset of the Omicron Varient, when you’d think people were at their most afraid to go to the movies than ever, but instead the audiences who shunned cinema-going all year suddenly decided that this was the time to absolutely pack in the theaters and every damn screening of the thing was basically sold out for the better part of ten days.  I finally got into a screening that was only about half full after its second weekend, which still doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, but it did allow me to finally stop running in fear from spoilers on the internet so I guess that’s a relief.

The film picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off: with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).  Parker is able to dodge legal liability from the deceased Mysterio’s attempts to frame him but public opinion is divided about him and this scrutiny extends to his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).  When this notoriety affects all three of their ability to get into MIT as they had planned Parker decides to take something of a desperate action.  He visits Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if there is some sort of sorcery that can be used to somehow solve his problem and Strange agrees but in the process of casting the spell something goes wrong and Strange needs to contain it rather than let it go through and asks Parker to leave.  On his way out he gets a hot tip that an MIT representative is on the highway heading to the airport and he swings out to the highway overpass in order to try to convince her to let MJ and Ned in but then something bizarre happens: the highway is attacked by Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)… the one we all saw in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2.  Soon it becomes apparent that Dr. Strange’s spell did have some odd side effects because it soon becomes apparent that the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and other villains from alternate Spider-Man universes have shown up in this continuity and Spider-Man will need to hustle to stop them all and send them back where they belong.

So, obviously the big novelty of this movie is that it’s using the concept of the “multi-verse” to make this a crossover with Sony’s pre-MCU Spider-Man movies, thus officially making them canon in a way.  As pure fan service that’s really cool but there are some downsides.  First and foremost three of the five movies they’re drawing characters from kind of suck.  Spider-Man 3 was plainly kind of a disaster and I didn’t like either of Andrew Gafield’s Spider-Man movies even a little.  Jamie Foxx’s Electro is a bad character, I barely even remembered what The Lizard’s deal was, and while The Sandman looked cool he does not have an arc I’m remotely attached to.  Truth be told I was never much of a fan of the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin either; I dug his performance but I always thought his costume kind of sucked, so really Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is the only villain here that I’m unreservedly happy to have back.  The film does try to undo some of the mistakes of the past in realizing some of these characters (like getting rid of Electro’s stupid blue makeup) there’s only so much they can really do to try to make some of these characters work and that’s a problem and the way the film almost seems to pause for applause whenever some of these characters show up is kind of cringe.

I would also note that I find the magical conceits used to make these crossovers happen did not make a ton of sense to me.  Dr. Strange generally behaves in what strikes me as a fairly out of character way to be trying to do this memory erasure spell in the first place and the fact that the spell goes awry through a sort of silly comedy is a bit weak to rest a film on.  I also found Strange’s rather vague description that the spell is, and I paraphrase, “drawing people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man into this universe” seems a bit odd given that this phenomenon is pretty selective about who it draws in: where is the Kirsten Dunst Mary Jane or the Emma Stone Gwen Stacy or the James Franco Harry Osborne or any number of other non-super villains who know Spider-Man’s identity?  There are various financial (or in the case of Franco moral) reasons these actors aren’t here and there likely wouldn’t have been a place in the movie for them anyway, but a clearer explanation for who is crossing into the universe and why would have been appreciated (and don’t get me started on how little sense the post-credits cameo makes).  Without getting too deep into spoilers I also don’t really get how the ultimate resolution to this predicament works either and how it doesn’t undo most of what Spider-Man was trying to accomplish through much of the rest of the movie.

Having said that, the Tom Holland Spider-Man universe has a pretty strong foundation to work from and it remains a pretty strong here.  The supporting cast we’ve come to enjoy (Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, etc.) has not really missed a beat and Jon Watts continues to impress behind the camera.  I have no idea if this guy can direct outside the MCU, and frankly I have a hunch that like the Russo Brothers his skills may well not translate to anything grittier, but he plainly understands the right tone for Spider-Man and knows his audience.  After a year of kind of weak MCU movies I think this did come closer to recapturing that magic audiences have come to expect from these movies and I appreciate that too, but after watching it I did feel I was a touch unsatisfied.  The film’s status as the movie that’s “saving theaters” by becoming a record-setting hit may have imbued it with an Avengers like air of importance for this franchise that it was maybe never meant to have and an event status it can’t quite live up to.  Slight resentment that I needed to compromise my health to see the damn thing may also have biased me against it just a bit.  That said I don’t think this is all a matter of context there are script issues that left me unsure about this thing and the fan service nature of its most prominent elements is ultimately kind of hollow.  I fear I’ve been more negative about this movie than I intended to be, though I also fear I’m giving it a bit of a pass on certain things out of fanboyism, it’s kind of a movie that feels a bit mood dependent in how much you’re inclined to forgive it for holes and circumstance did not have me in the most forgiving mood when I watched it.

*** out of Five


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings(9/9/2021)

As of late Marvel has been adapting some of their less well known characters but I think Shang-Chi is the first title character they’ve brought to screen that I straight-up hadn’t heard of before since Guardians of the Galaxy.  He’s a truly obscure character created in 1973 as a blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee and as far as I can tell had only been used sporadically between the early 80s and his recent resurgence in the run-up to this film.  Within the odd niche of Kung Fu themed Marvel characters he was generally overshadowed by another character named Iron Fist, who the MCU kind of squandered their shot at in a bad Netflix show.  It does not, however, take a genius to guess why Marvel was so interested in digging this character up: the Chinese market.  Everyone knows that there’s billions to be made in The Middle Kingdom and it would be foolish not to seek it out but at the same attempts to cynically pander to that audience have frequently blown up in people’s faces.  Anyone remember The Great Wall?  That was supposed to unite American and Chinese audiences but mostly just alienated both of them.  Then there was the disastrous attempt to put a Chinese character into that Monster Hunter and of course there was also Disney’s own recent debacle with Mulan, which flopped in China despite clearly having been tailored to appease local censors.  Audiences there seem to be able to smell out sino-centric pandering and have frequently sent the message to Hollywood that it should stay in its lane instead of trying to compete with their domestic filmmakers, also the nationalists there can be prickly and become offended by unexpected issues (often related to the backgrounds of various actors).  In fact it’s still not entirely clear if Shang-Chi will open in that country despite clearly trying to reach out to it.  Despite all that, China has a rich culture to mine and even if it’s not going to be the easy stepping stone into a lucrative foreign market that certain studios thing it will there is value in making movies that draw on that country’s mythology and filmmaking legacy just for its own sake and with that in mind I was excited to see what Marvel would do with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

The film begins by establishing a backstory for the film’s villain Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a Chinese warlord who has lived for centuries using the power of ten rings he keeps on his forearms and can use to do kung fu stuff.  Wenwu has also been called The Mandarin at times and it is established here that the bootleg version of The Mandarin we saw in Iron Man 3 was inspired by this true version of the character.  Then we move to the present and meet Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who is living in San Francisco and has been going by the name “Shaun” and has generally been embracing a life of under-achievement alongside a friend named Katy (Awkwafina). Then everything changes for him when he’s attacked by a group of assassins on a bus attempting to steal a pendant he’s wearing on his neck.  He fights them back but loses the pendant which forces him to admit to Katy that he has a secret past: he’s the son of Xu Wenwu and was trained to be a martial arts assassin at a young age and with the Ten Rings re-emerges in his life he needs to fly to Macau and find his long lost sister, who has a pendant of her own and may be their next target.

One of the things making Chinese nationalists leery about the film is that the original comic book iteration of Shang-Chi’s origin was that he was an estranged son of Fu Manchu, the racist stock villain from the pulp novels of old.  They certainly wanted to avoid that association for both progressive reasons and reasons of copyright so instead they’ve made his father an original character that is a version of The Mandarin, an Iron Man villain from the silver age who also has some problematic aspects.  So it was clearly important to them that they make their villain distinct from all that and I think it may have made them rather awkwardly go too far in the other direction because they’ve made Xu Wenwu into what they expect to be an oddly sympathetic figure for a guy who acted as a warlord for centuries before then forming a shadowy assassination league.  It’s the kind of approach that is perhaps understandable given that this is a character that’s related to the protagonist and obviously it’s generally good to give your villains shades of grey, but I’m not sure they really pulled it off here.  His motives are rather nebulous and a bit removed from his, uh, usual criminal career.

As for Shang-Chi himself… I don’t know, he seems alright.  For most of the movie he doesn’t really have superpowers aside from his kung fu skills, making this the second straight Marvel film (the other being Black Widow) to be about a hero who’s basically human, though there is a fairly substantial amount of magical stuff in the surrounding story.  As for the action scenes, they’re a bit of a mixed bag.  The opening action scene, a fight in the Jackie Chan style between Shang-Chi and some thugs on a moving bus, is awesome and is almost singlehandedly worth the price of admission, but the rest of the movie never really lives up to that first action scene and the film’s finale (which involves CGI dragons fighting each other) is particularly woozy.  The film’s overall aesthetic seems to be trying to do for Chinese culture what Black Panther did with African culture, but that seems a lot less special here given that China has a rather long tradition of big budget filmmaking that Africa does not and in many ways this can only really feel like something of diluted and westernized version of the martial arts movies that we’ve seen coming from China for decades and people who know their wuxia and their Jackie Chan will see the reference points this is drawing on.

I should probably disclose that I was in a bit of a grumpy mood when I saw this and that might have affected my take slightly.  I think this review is coming off a bit more negative than I mean it to.  There are some neat things here, I liked Awkwafina a lot as the sidekick here and even in concept it’s very cool to be seeing Hong Kong legends Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh working in a high profile Hollywood franchise blockbuster like this: paychecks well earned.  Still this never really gave me that giddy feeling that MCU films gave off when they’re in top form like they often were leading up to the final Avengers movies.  In many ways it feels like they’re putting more of their ambition into their Disney+ TV shows than they are into their movies at the moment while their actual movies are kind of feeling perfunctory.  “WandaVision” felt far more adventurous than this and “Loki” felt far more important to the overall MCU story going forward while this just kind of felt like a run of the mill origin story about a character whose origin only moderately interested me.  Still I do think that with the origin out of the way Shang-Chi himself may prove far more interesting in future sequels and crossover projects.

*** out of Five

The Suicide Squad(8/5/2021)

I think I’m the only person in the world who kinda sorta liked the 2016 film Suicide Squad.  I mean, I guess that technically isn’t true, it has a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes so a quarter of all critics liked it but I’m not really sure what happened to those other people because I don’t hear from them much nowadays.  Truth be told I do get why people disliked that movie because it did make some glaringly obvious mistakes and had some very annoying habits.  But you know, maybe I was in a forgiving mood when I saw it because, man, I couldn’t get too mad at that fucking movie.  There were elements of it which I liked a lot like the performances of Viola Davis and Margot Robbie and I also thought Will Smith was in fairly good form in it.  Beyond that, there was just a certain attitude to that movie… an attitude that likely disgusted a lot of people but which I saw a certain nostalgic charm to.  It was a movie that was unapologetically made to appeal to the ids of fourteen year olds… specifically fourteen year olds from the mid 2000s… which was maybe an odd audience to target in 2016 but man my own personal inner fourteen year old sort of vibed to it.  Still, even I was more than willing to say “maybe don’t do that again” and despite that movie having been a financial juggernaut (seriously, the damn made $133 million in its opening weekend) Warner Brothers seemed to realize they needed to go in a different direction if they were going to make a sequel.  As such they hired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn in a complicated game of musical chairs with Disney and had him make a movie that would still be within the continuity of that earlier film while having a much different feel to the point of feeling like a reboot.  That movie is The Suicide Squad (not the definite article), and it has just been unleashed on moviegoers.

The film begins some number of years after the events of the original Suicide Squad and its spinoff Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has once again come across a suicide mission to send a group of super-villain convicts to send on.  This one concerns an island nation called Corto Maltese whose regime has just been changed by a violent coup.  The new regime appears to be militantly anti-American, which is viewed as a threat, in particular because there’s a laboratory fortress on the island where a mad scientist named Gaius Grieves (Peter Capaldi) has been doing some sort of scary powerful experiments they don’t want falling into the wrong hands.  So, a rather large team is sent to infiltrate the island and take down the new regime and/or the laboratory.  Many are sent to the island but the film ends up primarily focusing in on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and fellow carryover from the previous film Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a mercenary named Bloodsport (Idris Elba), another mercenary called Peacemaker (John Cena), a woman named Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) who can make a swarm of rats do her bidding, a dude called Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) who can throw exploding polka-dots at people, and a bipedal walking shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

In my review of the 2016 Suicide Squad I said “for the most part they’re more like a special forces team of sorts than a conventional superhero team and it seems a bit odd to be sending them against this magical supernatural apocalyptic villain [when] these guys should be sent to take out a dictator or a cartel or a colorful gangster or something.”  Sure enough, while this sequel does eventually have them taking on a more fantastical villain eventually, the bulk of this movie does send the Suicide Squad after a more down to earth villain in the form of a Latin American dictator rather than the sorceress lady with an army of monsters they were fighting in the first film.  That kind of goes a long way and it’s in large part the result of Warner Brothers having let James Gunn make his Suicide Squad movie a hard R rated film as opposed to the lighter rating that previous movie struggled to earn through giving its squad CGI opponents to kill.  But beyond that, the harder rating here allows for a certain attitude that pervades this movie, there’s a meanness to it that isn’t quite there in Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  Characters are killed off here in a way that is downright flippant and the movie also dabbles in some political content that you don’t expect from a lot of studio tent poles.  The similarities between this plot and America’s history of Latin American interventionism is not lost on Gunn and the film doesn’t relegate this to subtext or blame an organization like Hydra for this, it’s flat out shady behavior by the American government behind everything.

Aesthetically one of the bigger differences you’ll notice between this and the 2016 film is actually the costuming.  You look at that movie and you notice that most of the squad aren’t really dressed like superheroes, they’re either wearing regular streetwear or they have some sort of modern looking armor and director David Ayer was generally trying to make sure everyone involved looked really cool.  Here they mostly take the opposite approach; most of the squad are dressed in very gaudy and very silver age comic book-like superhero outfits that are meant to emphasize the ridiculousness of some of these characters.  There are exceptions; Bloodsport’s costume is not dissimilar from what Will Smith was wearing in the first film, Harley Quinn’s outfits are in line with what she usually wears, and Ratcatcher is mostly dressed like a normal commando, but Peacemaker is decked out like a parody of Captain America complete with a silver helmet that gets compared to a toilet seat at one point and Polka-dot Man is in a crazy outfit covered in… polka dots.  Ovcr the course of the film you will detect something of a pattern in who is allowed to wear normal stuff and who isn’t (hint: you’ll notice that a lot of the people you meet earliest in the film are dressed the most ridiculously) but the choice points towards a larger change in the movie’s tone: it’s trying to be irreverent rather than badass… though there are also certainly badass moments.

The thing is, at this point we’re almost as over-saturated with violent and irreverent superhero movies as we are with regular vanilla superheroes.  We’ve got Deadpool, we’ve got “The Boys,” we’ve got “Invincible,” and for that matter we have Birds of Prey, so a lot of this movie’s “craziness” isn’t going to hit as hard as it might have five years ago or thereabouts.  Spoiler.  Introducing a team of heroes only to immediately kill them off is a move that would seem absolutely outrageous if not for the fact that Deadpool 2 already did it, similarly turning a flag waving Boy Scout like Peacemaker into a psycho for the establishment would seem wildly subversive if “The Boys” wasn’t already all about that.  But that’s not to say there aren’t some legitimately clever things here.  Ending the movie with a fight against a giant walking starfish is certainly not the obvious and expected choice given where this thing starts and there are other smaller choices along the way like a half animated fight scene or a person riding a floor as multiple levels of a tower collapse.  Also as jaded as we’ve all become I do think it’s safe to say that a movie prominently featuring a shark person walking around eating people is still kind of weird.

So is this better than the 2016 Suicide Squad?  Yeah, of course, but maybe not by as much as some people will say.  Even more pertinently I definitely don’t think it’s as good as the work James Gunn did on Guardians of the Galaxy with its more feel good vibes.  Honestly I think Gunn might be a filmmaker who works better under the constraints of something like the MCU forcing him to dilute his usual snark into something more human and sincere, without that his edgelord Troma side (the side that led him to post a bunch of tweets that would eventually get him in trouble with the mouse) starts to come out.  This movie doesn’t necessarily go too far in that direction but it edges up to that line here and there.  Beyond that there are some more basic issues to be found; it’s pacing is a bit weird, it’s rather inconsistent about how much Amanda Waller is able to see whenever it’s convenient, I didn’t care for a sub-plot involving Harley Quinn and the seeming villain of the film about half way through.  Also, while the film clearly has a wit to it I wouldn’t really call it “funny” exactly, I wasn’t really laughing through it.  But again, a duel with a giant starfish kind of goes a long way toward smoothing over any issues I might have with something like this.  This is definitely a movie worth seeing if this kind of “oh no they didn’t” satire is for you or if you’re just looking for a mean little action movie or if you just want to mess around in DC continuity for a while.  It’s not going to be for everyone (I suspect it will definitely alienate some audiences) but it probably shouldn’t be ignored.

***1/2 out of Five

Spiral: From the Book of Saw(5/14/2021)

There’s a much quoted line from the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” where in an argument Ann says to Leslie “you made me watch all eight Harry Potter movies, I don’t even like Harry Potter” to which Leslie responds “that’s insane, you love Harry Potter, you’ve seen all eight movie!”  Well, I’m in a similar position with the Saw movies, I’ve consistently said I hate them… but I’ve also seen all nine of them and I don’t even have someone else I can blame for this, I did it to myself.  So why did I do that?  Well, it’s for much the same reason I’ve seen every Friday the 13th movie or every Halloween movie, at a certain point when a franchise can stick around for years and keep making instalment after installment a certain curiosity takes over and once I start watching the movies I start to take a certain interest in seeing how the franchise owners are going to find ways to keep their cash cows alive and evolve their properties over the years and decades even if I’ve never really liked them.  And I’ve never like the Saw movies, not even the first Saw which I always found to be a cheap and silly movie powered by ludicrous plot twists and with some rather irritating music video-like filmmaking driving it.  I’ve never really talked about any of the movies at length, mainly because I’ve generally caught up with them long after the fact rather than in their initial run and under normal circumstances that would have been the case for the latest Saw movie as well, the oddly named Spiral: From the Book of Saw.  But these are not normal circumstances, I’ve just become fully vaccinated and wanted to make my return to movie theaters and this just so happened to be the new release this week and between that and curiosity about Chris Rock’s involvement in this one I found myself seeing one of these in theaters for the first time.

This installment of the franchise is technically another sequel insomuch as it acknowledges that Jigsaw was a serial killer in the world of this film, but it doesn’t really specifically bring up any of the events of the later sequels or the events of the movie Jigsaw, which was the last attempt at rebooting the franchise.  That movie was much more interested in tackling this series’ convoluted timelines, but this one makes more of a clean break and focuses on a homicide detective named Zeke Banks (Chris Rock).  Banks is the son of a former police chief named Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson) and has become something of a pariah within his department because he “snitched” on a dirty cop twelve years earlier.  He seems to be at a bit of a low point when he’s assigned as the lead detective on a particularly brutal murder in which someone was hung by his tongue over subway tracks and forced to choose between mutilation and being hit with a train and the guy’s hesitation led to the latter.  The method of murder suggests that this was a copycat murder in the style of the Jigsaw Killer’s old crusade against human self-worth deficiencies.  However, it becomes apparent that this first victim was actually a cop and clues indicate that he was targeted because of this and because he was dirty and that future victims will also be dirty cops and that makes the whole case extra urgent and Zeke’s role as the lead detective rather fraught.

That Chris Rock stars here is a bit of a coup and also a departure from how this series normally operates.  Aside from Danny Glover’s work as a secondary character in the original film and Donnie Wahlberg starring in the second film this series has not bothered to cast anyone even remotely famous in any of the other sequels.  I’m guessing that was mostly a choice driven by budgetary concerns and the fact that they’ve mostly been working with “discount” casts has been one of the franchises more glaring weaknesses.  If studio publicity is to be believed, Rock’s presence here was something he himself lobbied for; the story being that he met the head of Lionsgate at some party or other and made a pitch for a Saw movie that was so compelling that they just had to give him and installment.  Frankly I find that story to be rather suspect, firstly because Rock doesn’t have any kind of “story by” credit and secondly because, well, the elevator pitch for this half-baked movie could not have been half as interesting as that story makes it sound.  The basic premise of “new Jigsaw killer now targets dirty cops” is basically in line with what you’d expect this franchise to do when exploiting current events (not unlike Saw VI, in which Jigsaw decided to start torturing health insurance executives right at the height of the Obamacare debate) and they sure don’t do anything overly pointed or interesting with the idea.

But let’s say Rock did pitch that idea and everyone really was earnestly excited to make a Black Lives Matter Saw movie.  You’d think that the next step would have been to hire some young African American writers and directors to bring that idea to life, but they didn’t.  Instead they just got some series regulars to do it.  It was written by the same white guys who made Jigsaw and it was directed by the white guy who directed Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV.  That’s not to say that Caucasians can’t make a movie like this but from a creative standpoint this is neither the radical reboot it sells itself as nor is it an authentic attempt at bringing a black voice.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t something brought to the table here by Rock as its star.  He clearly was given some power over the script or perhaps a lot of leeway to adlib on the set because there are lines here that are clearly consistent with his voice as a comedian which are some of the film’s highlights, but it’s not really a laugh out loud comedy or anything and its moments of effective levity are fleeting and I must say.  What’s more I think the money that went to Rock and Samuel L. Jackson ate into the film’s gory deathtrap money because a lot of what we’re given here in that department feels both less inspired and less elaborately constructed than what we see in other installments of the movie.

As for the film’s actual Black Lives Matter subtext: it’s half-assed.  That’s in large part because the movie’s entire conception of “the police” seems to come less from reality and more from bad buddy cop movies from the 80s that it shamelessly recycles right down to the last cliché.  This is literally a movie that opens with the “detective who plays by his own rules” who wants to work alone being forced by his long suffering chief to partner up with a naïve rookie detective and it doesn’t get less shamelessly derivative from there and most of the police corruption that gets punished is more of the overt Serpico variety rather than the systemic unconscious bias variety aside from a few moments that are very clumsily “ripped from the headlines.”  What’s more a lot about this new copycat killer’s plan does not really make a lot of sense.  Why, for example, does he follow Jigsaw’s lead in allowing each of his victims a fleeting chance at escaping their torturous deaths through self-mutilation?   He plainly doesn’t care about making these people “appreciate their lives” like Jigsaw did and is more interested in “sending a message” so that really doesn’t fit.  What’s more if “sending a message” is the idea, why does he do it by playing mind-games with Zeke, who would seem to be the last person on the force that needs to have a “message” sent to when it would be significantly more interesting for him to have sent his messages directly to the media and think about how the public would react to his sanguine shenanigans.  There could have been an interesting exploration here of the efficacy of using violence to make political statements, but this script is far too stupid for that.

So, not exactly the return to theaters I was hoping for.  Truth be told I probably should have seen this coming what with my history of distaste for the series.  I mean, I’ve given negative reviews to almost every installment of the franchise but something about them kind of makes me look back at them and remember the more interesting parts of each movie while forgetting how shoddy a lot of them are when I actually watch them.  What’s more, I somehow let myself be punk’d into thinking they’re going to do new and interesting things to come back over and over when they generally don’t.  In fact I’d say this was a much less successful attempt at reviving the series than the 2017 film Jigsaw, which didn’t have many new ideas to work with either but it at least looked better than most of the other movies whereas I’d say this one is actively a step backwards.  I’m not sure the Saw series is ever going to be effectively rebooted until it’s out of the hands of the people at Twisted Pictures who clearly can’t let go of the old assembly line that used to make them so much money.  On the other hand, maybe there’s not much room for this to comeback at all, it’s very much a relic of the early 2000s torture porn trend; it didn’t fit in well to the 2010s haunted house trend, and if this movie is any indication it sure as hell doesn’t fit in with the recent trend of post-Get Out overtly political horror movies either and that it should probably take a long break before they try again.

*1/2 out of Five


I’m a more than a bit of a tightwad and one of the ways that this manifests is that instead of staying subscribed to all the streaming services that I want I instead swap a lot of them out at various points.  I stay subscribed to Netflix, Hulu, and now HBO Max pretty consistently but with the second tier services like Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Apple+, and Shudder I’ve instead opted for a cheapskate approach where I’ll subscribe to each occasionally for one month and just binge up everything they’ve released over the course of a year and then cancel before the next month’s bill is due.  One of the services I’ve been doing this for is Disney+, which is all a long way of explaining that I was not in a position to watch when the Mouse House decided to send their latest Pixar film Soul straight to their steaming service almost a month ago and instead used Wonder Woman 1984 as my Christmas Day streaming premiere viewing of choice.  I was in the middle of a month’s long Amazon subscription period when that premiered (as you may have been able to intuit from some of my reviews from the time) but I’m in a Disney phase now, and given all the stuff they announced at their latest investor call I have some reason to think I’ll be sticking with that for longer than a month this time and of course one of the first things on my “to watch” list upon re-subscribing was of course that promising new Pixar film which has indeed proven to be one of that studio’s best efforts in a long time.

The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York pianist who is currently working as a middle school band teacher but still dreams of having a career as a jazz performer and has long tried to “gig” without ever really breaking through much to the frustration of his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who wants to encourage him to just settle down and work as a full time teacher.  One day a former student named Lamont (Questlove) calls him and offers him the chance to audition to play in the band of a famous saxophonist named Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), that audition goes alright and he’s told to come back that night and perform with the band in front of an audience.  He’s so excited by this that he dashes recklessly through the street and falls down a manhole… seemingly killing him.  He then “wakes up” as a disembodied soul going up a sort of stairway towards a shining light, but, having no interest whatsoever in going to “the great beyond” without having his shot to prove himself as a jazz great he jumps off the stairway and into an adventure that will have him going throughout the afterlife and beyond.

The afterlife has been depicted several times throughout film history, usually in comedies like Defending Your Life and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey but sometimes also in more serious works like What Dreams May Come, Jacob’s Ladder, and A Matter of Life and Death, and despite being a staunch atheist who does not even believe in the concept of the afterlife and the soul I am kind of a sucker for people using the limitations of a medium like film to represent what are in fact incredibly abstract concepts like heaven, hell, and purgatory.  Animation, and especially computer animation would seem to be a rather ideal medium to tackle that in and in that and Pixar has actually tackled the afterlife (and the afterlife of musicians at that) previously in their 2017 film Coco, which used the Day of the Dead holiday as a take on the afterlife.  That was a movie that never quite lived up to its potential for me for reasons I’ve never quite been able to place my finger on.  That is ultimately a pretty different movie though, one that’s more about coming to term with the deaths of loved ones than with facing one’s own mortality, what’s more the city of the dead in that felt less like an analogue for heaven and more like a sort of alternate dimension where everyone’s a skeleton.

The afterlife depicted in Soul is a much more sterile and orderly one than the one in Coco.  It’s probably more rooted in Christianity than in say, Hinduism, but it doesn’t refer to itself as “heaven” and generally tries to remain somewhat ecumenical if not secular.  We get a “stairway to heaven” but an automated one very much of the computer age and the overseers of this afterlife are not angels so much as these rather ethereal and detached bureaucrats who seem to exist on a 2D plain in a 3D world while the deceased and the yet to be born are these disembodied blue souls.  The film presents a view of a rather ordered if imperfect universe where souls move into and out of the world almost on an assembly line complete with an auditing process and a training process, but this isn’t necessarily some sort of statement about industrialization so much as it’s establishing conceptual framework to understand this world.  Meanwhile a lot of the animation used for the earthly scenes in New York are themselves quite impressive in their realism and you can tell they spent a lot of time in Gotham trying to get every detail of how that city feels, albeit done in something of a sanitized PG way.  The characters here are caricatured, but not wildly, it’s generally trying to depict more of a realistic world than something like Up but does not go into uncanny valley motion-capture type territory.

As the film goes it does find ways to return to Earth, at which point it starts to fit a bit into the mold of those 1940s “afterlife comedies” like A Guy Named Joe and Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  The film is perhaps notable among Pixar films in that it focuses on an adult human rather than a child or some sort of anthropomorphized animal or object.  In fact its protagonist might be a touch old for what they’re doing as Joe Gardner reads as a man in his forties despite being somewhat oblivious about his personality and goals.  I have a hunch that in earlier versions of the screenplay he was younger but at some point it was decided that the idea of a film opening with the seeming death of a man in his twenties was a little too depressing to get past.  As his soul goes through the afterlife and begins finding his way back to Earth the film actually indulges in quite a bit of comedy, both through some slapstick body-swapping antics and through some light prodding at New York culture.   There’s a certain Ratatouille-like cartoon logic at play in the way Gardner interacts with a certain feline sidekick during these sequences which takes a certain leap of logic to accept but I enjoyed it and found the adventure elements here to be much more original and enjoyable than in other Pixar movies like Inside Out which take on formats like that almost as an excuse to drag things out as the characters develop.

I’ve gone on quite a journey with Pixar over the years and I’ve rarely been in lock step with critical consensus about them.  In the early days when they were first becoming critical darlings I wasn’t even bothering to watch them and when I did catch up with them I never really felt like they lived up to the hype.  But then when the studio stopped being such a cause célèbre and began harming their legacy with questionable sequels and the like I oddly found myself becoming something of a defender of the studio and suggested that some of their films like Finding Dory, Toy Story 4, and Onward were being unfairly undervalued or taken for granted by critics who perhaps thought the bar set by their older films was higher than it really was, and frustratingly enough I also was never quite as into some of the supposed highlights of this period like Inside Out and Coco.  With Soul though I think we might finally have a movie that everyone can agree on.  It’s hardly a flawless movie, I think the ending is a bit of a copout and at the end of the day I’m not sure it really has anything terribly original to say about death or about following your dreams, but the movie does do a whole lot right.  I haven’t even had a chance to get into its canny roster of voice talent or the film’s amazing score by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste.  To me this is plainly Pixar’s best work since their 2008 film Wall-E, which has been consistently held up as the studio at its height, so it’s basically a movie that more than achieves what can reasonably be expected of it.

****1/2 out of Five

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker(12/19/2019)

You know who I’m jealous of?  The 95% of the population who are going to go see Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker without having spent the last two years arguing about the merits of the last movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, on the internet.  This endless debate has been just a real bummer and has mostly consisted of people talking right past each other while making strawmen out of one another.  It’s been especially painful for me since I was among the people who didn’t like that movie which kind of put me at odds with both the critical consensus and in the rather awkward position of arguing against a movie for what I considered the right reasons while knowing there were a handful of people who were also arguing against it for the not so right reasons.  But I wasn’t going to just shut up and pretend there wasn’t a whole lot about that movie which bugged me and I ended up writing a three thousand three hundred word review of the damn thing which I think is to date the longest review I’ve ever written.  And now this whole debate is being rekindled all over again by the final film in this new Star Wars trilogy, which was directed by J.J. Abrams rather than Rian Johnson and which critics seem to be coming at it with knives out (pun intended) for perceived offenses against their preferred installment.  I’m going to do my best to discuss this thing without rehashing the old TLJ arguments all over again and I certainly don’t plan to set new length records.

We learn right from the film’s opening crawl that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow resurrected and soon learn that he had created Snoke and was behind the resurgence of the Empire during this trilogy.  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has already found him and has begun to plot with him, but no one else knows where he is.  Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has continued her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher) but then Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) arrive at the base with a lead suggesting that Palpatine is on an unknown planet called Exegol, a name that Rey recognizes from one of Luke Skywalker’s journals.  Knowing that The First Order is about to go on the offensive using a fleet of super star destroyers that will destroy the rebellion if they can’t find Palpatine and put an end to all of this.  As such Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB8, and C-3PO set out to recapture the trail that Luke was on to find this planet years ago.

If I had to sum up my objections to The Last Jedi it would be that it not only ignored mysteries that were deliberately set up in the first film but it dismissed them in the most disrespectful way possible.  It essentially told the fans they were stupid for having invested in ideas that J.J. Abrams had told them to invest in in the first place.  For instance, critics seemed to think there was a whole lot of interest to be mined from the fact that Rey’s parents weren’t prominent figures from earlier films, but to me that was just the most anti-climactic possible solution to a mystery from the first film.  There’s nothing new about force users coming from “nobodies,” hell, Anakin Skywaker himself came from “nowhere.”  So that wasn’t a radical reinvention so much as it was a lame “surprise” that didn’t fit within the original puzzle.  And now that he’s back in the director’s chair people are accusing J.J. Abrams of “capitulating” to the “bad fans” who dared not to like their precious Rian Johnson movie when the truth of the matter is that he was clearly just reverting back to the original vision he had when he made the widely popular The Force Awakens.  He also clears up a few other things that Johnson recklessly muddled like the origins of Snoke, Luke Skywalker’s reasons for having a bad attitude about training Rey, and the bad out of place comedy is kept to a minimum.

Of course there are still issues with this trilogy that this isn’t able to fix.  There’s still no explanation for why Rey was able to become a lightsaber savant without training and the basic logistics of how the First Order managed to take over the galaxy so quickly generally don’t make a lot of sense.  I would also say that the general trend of these movies mirroring installments of the original trilogy continues.  The Force Awakens was almost scene for scene similar to A New Hope, The Last Jedi very closely mirrored The Empire Strikes Back (despite critics’ insistence that it’s some sort of avant-garde reinvention), and the new film certainly has a lot in common with The Return of the Jedi though I’d argue not it’s not a ripoff to anywhere near the degree that The Force Awakens was.  Yes, the film has the Emperor and Lando but there isn’t really an equivalent to Jabba’s palace here and while the film does end in a big battle that’s intercut with a more personal conflict between Jedi something like that was probably inevitable regardless of who made this movie.  I would also say that the film is a little too drunk on slightly pandering cameos toward the end and I would also say that the movie isn’t entirely successful in building a performance out of Carrie Fisher stock footage to give Leia a meaningful role in the film.  That last issue was probably unavoidable to some extent but still the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty obvious what’s happening there and it’s not seamless.

But as easy as it is to pick holes in certain elements of the movie, but pros outweigh the cons in a pretty big way for me.  This is the first time we’ve really seen the cast of the new trilogy working together on a mission and the adventure elements here really delivered for me.  I’ve heard people say that the movie is “overstuffed” and moves too fast but to some extent that fast pace seems like an asset to me.  The characters find themselves on some visually interesting planets and there are some fairly solid action scenes along the way.  I also thought the film did a better job than I expected resolving the tensions between Rey and Kylo Ren, which I thought was kind of a mess by the end of The Last Jedi.  Beyond that I actually liked how hopeful and crowd pleasing the film’s finale was.  There’s nothing revolutionary about the way the last battle plays out but it certainly milks your desire to see win triumph over evil and as much as I might say they went a little overboard on some of the fan service I would be lying if I didn’t say I was struck when some of it happened.  It’s a kind of catharsis we from franchises like this in troubling times like these.

Honestly I’m not sure I’ve done a wonderful job of defending this movie, but I’m also kind of surprised that this is a movie that needs defending.  I can see why some people would be disappointed that this didn’t go off in whatever wild direction they thought The Last Jedi was pointing towards but isn’t that the same argument that was dismissed when people made it about The Last Jedi itself and its decision to ignore what The Force Awakens set up?  I heard one prominent Film Twitter personality accuse it of being “rude” to Rian Johnson as if Rian Johnson hadn’t been incredible rude to J.J. Abrams first.  And what’s really strange about the reception is that just about everything it’s been accused of things that are pretty in keeping with what The Force Awakens was doing, and last time I checked people liked The Force Awakens a lot.  I have the receipts; that movie is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a solid 81 on Metacritic, if you liked that movie you should like this one or at least not be overly surprised that it is the way it is and the people claiming it’s “worse than the prequels” really strike me as being wildy un-objective… of course I’m doubt I can be too objective about it either.  It’s Star Wars dammit, it’s a series that’s ingrained in the back of my psyche and has been since I was a small child so what can I say, it’s a movie that delivered some quality Star Wars and even in this world where Disney is wildly monetizing that IP you don’t really get that too often.

***1/2 out of Five