Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(5/6/2017)

On my Letterboxd page I have this running list ranking every Marvel/DC superhero movie I’ve seen including almost every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s got almost 50 movies on it at this point but one movie I haven’t included on it is the original The Guardians of the Galaxy for the simple reason that, despite have the Marvel logo in front of it, that movie is not a superhero film.  None of the characters really have “superpowers” with the possible exception of Groot, they don’t have secret identities, they aren’t really vigilantes, in fact they’re barely even heroic.  They really don’t fit any definition of “superhero,” rather the movie was a straight-up space opera.  With the possible exception of Groot none of the characters really had any superpowers beyond some science fictiony gear, they didn’t have secret identities, and they also weren’t really all that heroic.  If these are superheroes then so are the crews of the Millennium Falcon, the Serenity, and Moya.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it was pretty refreshing.  Marvel has more than enough superhero stories under its belt and being away from the web of cameos that characterize the Avengers theater of the Marvel world gave the filmmakers freedom to sort of do their own thing.  Sure they were still chasing around and infinity stone and the film’s irreverent tone maybe wasn’t as unique as some people made it out to be but for the most part it did sort of seem like its own thing and the film’s entertainment value was there.  Audiences seemed to agree and made what was thought to be a relatively risky venture into one of Marvel’s biggest hits.  Now the crew is back for a sequel and one with much higher expectations to boot.

Set shortly after the events of the original film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our roguish heroes on a mercenary gig on behalf of an alien race called the Sovereigns in exchange for the custody of Nebula (Karen Gillan), who they have apparently captured after the events of the first film.  The mission is a success but soon they find themselves on the outs with the Sovereign when its revealed that Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has stolen from them.  Soon they’re chased across the galaxy and crash land on a random planet.  Fortunately they soon find themselves saved by a stange guy named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains that he is Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long lost father and the two of them along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to go off to Ego’s homeworld while Rocket and Groot (who’s taken the form of an infant after the events of the first film but is still voiced by Vin Diesel) stay back and repair the ship while guarding Nebula.  While staying back Rocket and Groot encounter Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his gang, who capture them after Yondu himself finds himself the victim of a mutiny.  Meanwhile back on Ego’s planet the rest of the crew start making some disturbing discoveries of their own.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like a lot of Marvel movies recently, is one of those movies which in many ways doesn’t really feel like it needs to be reviewed.  I feel like I could save a lot of time and effort by just saying “Did you like the first movie?  Yes?  Then you’ll probably like this one too.”  I guess that hasn’t always been true about Marvel movies.  In fact in most of Marvel’s franchises the second movie has been the big stumbling block.  The second Iron Man movie was pretty widely disliked and for my money the second Thor is the worst movie that the studio has ever put out, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron also kind of sucked if you want to view that as a second movie.  I think the issue with these first sequels is that they want to be as breezy as the original films but they don’t have origin stories to hang on like their predecessors and they can just seem kind of like aimless movies treading water.  It’s no coincidence that the one sub-franchise to really avoid that sophomore slump was Captain America, in part because the original in that case was set during World War II and by shifting time periods the first sequel had to kind of re-invent the series rather than rest on its laurels.  In a number of ways Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does have the same problem as some of those other marvel sequels but silly aimlessness is almost the point of the GoG series so that doesn’t seem as egregious.

If there’s a real problem here it’s probably that some of the crew, particularly Peter Quill, is kind of starting to buy into the notion that they’re heroes rather than scoundrels.  In the first movie Quill famously described himself as “an ‘a-hole’ but not one hundred percent a dick” but here he seems to be at most 10% a dick and not really much of an “a-hole” at all outside of a few quarrels with Rocket.  You’d hardly know he was raised by pirates at all despite the film revisiting that aspect of his life in more detail than you’d expect.  Rocket still has some of his original edge to him but the rest of the crew seems to be rapidly moving away from the notion that they’re thieves and mercenaries at all.  That’s not a huge problem given the particulars of the story that’s being told in this particular installment and it’s not necessarily something you’re going to be noticing while watching the movie, but if you go away from it thinking something was missing it might be that.  On the other hand the movie does start to establish constructed family of the Fast and Furious variety as the running theme of the series, which, is fine I guess.  Not exactly the world’s most original focus for a movie like this but it works I guess even if they start hitting it really really hard toward the end.

Oh, but here I am something like a thousand words into this review and I haven’t even brought up what people actually care about in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie: the soundtrack.  Once again the film has assembled a collection of 60s/70s classic pop songs to populate the film with.  This time around the music selections are pretty much in line with what we saw before except that there are fewer kitschy choices like “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” that serve to be enjoyed ironically.  Most of the songs here do seem to be music I can imagine director James Gunn pretty genuinely enjoys and wants to bring to his audience’s attention.  The musical highlights are probably the sequences set to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electronic Light Orchestra and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & The Americans.  However I will note that the conceit from the first film that these songs are all coming from Quill’s Walkman and that he’s sort of imposing them on the aliens around him against their will is increasingly thrown out the window in this movie and there are some slightly off scenes where characters like Rocket and Yondu seem to be digging into Quill’s collection unprompted.

So I guess we’re back to the “if you liked the first movie you’ll probably like this one” stance I took at the beginning.  The movie is basically more of the same with minor tweaks and adjustments, which maybe speaks to how effective that first movie was because there are definitely franchises out there that would not be able to get away with a retread like this as effectively as this one has.  Will they be able to do keep on doing what they’re doing for a volume 3 without shaking things up a little?  I don’t know.  Apparently the Guardians will have a part in the next Avengers movie, not sure how that’s going to work out.  Personally I’d like to see what a Guardians movie where the crew goes to Earth and gets their “Voyage Home” on would look like, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Your Name(4/9/2017)

I’ve been going to “arthouse” theaters for a little over ten years now and there’s one thing that’s remained a constant about these theaters since the beginning: the audiences at them are very old.  There are some young people who will show up to them occasionally, myself included, but I would bet that the median audience age at some of these theaters is sixty or over.  However, recently I went to one of these theaters to see an anime film called Your Name and was taken aback by what I saw: the crowd that had assembled to see the movie was the youngest set of faces I’d ever seen at that theater.  There were a couple of the “traditional” arthouse audiences members I’d normally expect to see at a place like this peppered in but most of the people there seemed to be college, maybe even high school aged or at least in their twenties.  At the age of 29 I may well have actually been in in the elder third of audience members at that theater for the first time in my life.  It was also a pretty large crowd in general.  These kind of theaters do fill up some times, usually when movies that are getting Oscar buzz make their local debut, but in general I expect Sunday afternoon screenings at these places to be half filled at most but this place was close to sold out.  It was heartening.  Of course a big part of this may be that, outside of its foreignness Your Name is not really an “arthouse film” at all.  In its native Japan it’s actually a huge blockbuster.  It’s made nearly $200 million dollars in that country alone making it the fourth highest grossing movie of all time in that country and it’s also done big business in China and South Korea.  Apparently that buzz reached across the pacific and generated a crowd to see the film now that it’s available in the United States.

Your Name appears to be set in present day Japan and concerns a pair of teenagers named Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who live far away from each other and seemingly have no connections to one another until one day they mysteriously begin to switch bodies ala Freaky Friday.  It’s not terribly clear why this is happening but seems to be connected to a comet that’s visible in the sky while all this is going on.  Mitsuha is a girl living in a remote little town called Itomori while Taki is a guy living in Tokyo so Mitsuha is thrilled to experience all the fun things in Taki’s life while Taki comes to be charmed by Mitsuha’s town and its quaint ways.  The two are not in this state permanently and seem to do these body switches only a couple of times a week and when they return to their own bodies their out of body experiences feel hazy, more like dreams they’ve woken from rather than clearly remembered experiences and the two leave notes for one another and set certain boundaries that the other shouldn’t be crossing.  This goes on for a little while and the film seems like a pretty pleasant little low stakes comedy but there is something else going on here and when it emerges it makes this experience all the more deep for both people involved.

Unlike other famous anime films like Akira or Princess Mononoke this is not a film that “needs” to be animated given its subject matter.  There’s obviously a fantasy element in its concept but it’s set in mundane contemporary locales and doesn’t have any monsters or anything but I also doubt that a live action version of this script would have made one third of a billion dollars.  I think one of the biggest advantages of the animated format here is that it makes the body swap concept a bit more organic than it would in a conventional film.  In live action films like Big and Freaky Friday these high concepts get gimmicky fast and turn into these actors’ showcases and the whole thing becomes about the performers acting strangely and nothing else.  Your Name isn’t devoid of the kind of gags that this scenario would invite but they don’t overpower it and the film does organically “get over” the basic strangeness of the situation and move on past the obvious jokes.  Additionally, the animated format helps to get past a few narrative conceits that are required to get past a few inconsistencies that occur in the second half.  I can’t get into too much more detail on this but there are a couple of aspects to this that would definitely be considered plot holes if you’re not able to accept that the time these two spend in each other’s bodies are experienced almost like dreams and the fact that the film has the extra layer of unreality that animation provides makes this work a little better.

There is a bit more going on here than initially meets the eye and there is a twist in the second half that does raise the stakes to the movie a little and take it in a bit of a different direction than it initially seems and this shift is pretty well handled but I won’t go into any further details.  Overall I did find this to be a fairly charming and entertaining movie, at least when taken in a certain spirit.  The movie is about teenagers, and to a certain extent it’s also made for them and you do need to put yourself into a bit of a “young adult” mentality in order to fully enjoy it.  People should not go into it expecting it to be the next Ghost in the Shell or something, but its relative lightness is also a big part of its appeal.  Anime is generally known to be made for something of a niche audience, but Your Name isn’t.  It’s more accessible to general audiences than the sci-fi/fantasy fare that anime is usually associated with in the west, but at the same time it’s a bigger and more notable film than the more tranquil “Josei” anime that often have trouble finding broader audiences.  That, I think, is a big part of why it’s managed to find such a wide audience.  The other part is that it’s just such a well-made and enjoyable piece of work with a nice blend of comedy and pathos.

Personal Shopper(3/26/2017)

Throughout film history there are all sorts of movie that come to be seen as “companion films” whether the director intended them to be or not.  To cite a recent example, I have trouble thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan without relating it to his previous movie about performance based obsession The Wrestler.  That linkage was probably intention, but take another recent example in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Both are violent crime movies seemingly removed from the director’s horror roots and both star Viggo Mortenson, but are they really all that deeply linked beneath the surface?  Often these thematic companion films end up being parts of thematic trilogies like Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy or Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Antonioni’s famed Alienation trilogy so it’s sometimes hard to tell if we simply need to wait and see what happens next when two films come back to back in a director’s filmography and seem like they’re each responses to the other.  I bring this up because the new film from Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, seems to share an awful lot with his last film Clouds of Sils Maria and yet there are also a lot of differences too.

The film follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American living alone in Paris where she acts as a personal shopper for celebrities.  For those not in the know, a personal shopper is someone who goes out to boutique stores on the behalf of the rich and/or famous and finds garments they believe would be to their client’s tastes and buy them on their behalf.  As the film begins Maureen is in mourning, she recently lost a twin brother who had a heart attack as a result of a rare heart condition, a condition that she also has.  She’s been told that it’s entirely possible to live to a ripe old age despite this condition but you can tell it’s still a specter that weighs on her. What also weighs on her is that she shared a very close bond with her brother to the point where she almost felt like she had a sixth sense about him and believes that if he wants to he can reach out to her from “beyond” and give her some sign.  That sign seems to come to her one day when she receives a text message on her phone from an unknown number and comes to believe that she is indeed communicating with someone from beyond the grave.

The film’s common bonds with Clouds of Sils Maria are pretty readily apparent.  Both films are predominantly English language (albeit decidedly European) productions starring Kristen Stewart as an American who’s in France to perform as a servant of sorts for a famous person.  Both films also employ some similar tricks in terms of film grammar as well but there are also very clear differences between the two films as well.  Clouds of Sils Maria had two main characters and was just as much Juliette Binoche’s film as it was Kristen Stewart’s.  Also Kristen Stewart’s character here is quite different from the one she played in the earlier film.  Both characters could be said to be “punks” of some variety but the attitude is very different.  In the earlier film she maybe had some sadness beneath the surface but was otherwise a pretty confident and talkative character but here she’s kind of an emotional mess and has a deep melancholic streak.  Also, while there was a certain magical realism at play in Clouds of Sils Maria (if that’s even an accurate term for it) there’s an overtly supernatural element to Personal Shopper.  The film should not be mistake for a true horror movie by any means but from the very beginning of the film it’s made pretty clear that there is a ghost in it and much of the film is all about how much Stewart wants to believe in this ghost and how she interprets it.

I don’t think I liked Personal Shopper as much as I liked Clouds of Sils Maria but it does have a lot going for it.  Stewart is quite good in the film even if the role seems like less of a stretch for her than her previous role in an Assayas film.  The film also manages to find some excitement in some interesting ways.  Like, an awful lot of this movie actually involves watching someone type and receive text messages, which would seem to be a difficult thing to make cinematic but Assayas does somehow manage to pull it off.   The movie certainly establishes a palpable mood of melancholia but beyond that I’m not sure I ever really truly connected with the character at its center and found its occasional jaunts into the overtly supernatural to be a bit clumsy.  Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie I’d probably recommend to pretty much any cinema literate person but this one is a little bit iffier.  I’d probably still recommend it but I’d recommend Clouds of Sils Maria first and if that leaves you wanting more than definitely give Personal Shopper a shot too, but there’s a reason why I’ve hardly been able to write a sentence about the movie without mentioning the previous movie.

The Salesman(2/26/2017)

2011 was kind of a crappy year for movies.  I mean there were certainly some good and even very good movies that came out that year but there was almost nothing that really inspired a really strong reaction from me and by year’s end nothing had come out that really seemed worthy of being called “best of the year” and that was kind of depressing me.  Then, almost like a miraculous deus ex machina, I found myself going to see one last movie before locking in my top ten list: an Iranian film that had received a lot of critical buzz called A Separation.  Needless to say that became my favorite movie of the year, and while it would be a big exaggeration to say it restored my faith in cinema it certainly made me feel a lot better about the year.  The film, which took a deep dive into a moral quagmire surrounding a pair of families, did not revel in Metatextual cleverness like the most famous Iranian films and instead defined itself by its humanity and insight and managed to be this amazingly accessible but incredibly deep film that was engrossing to watch.  Clearly a new master had emerged and yet I somehow found myself missing his follow up film, the French language The Past, in theaters.  I don’t remember all the details, I think it just came out late in the year during the Oscar logjam and reviews weren’t as strong as they were for his previous movie.  When I finally caught up with it and found it was really good too that seemed like a very bad choice.  I was not going to repeat the same mistake with his new film The Salesman.

The Salesman concerns a literature teacher/semi-professional actor living in Tehran named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) who are currently staging a Persian production of Arthur Miller’s landmark play “Death of a Salesman.”  They’ve also recently moved into a new apartment in a building owned by someone in their theater troupe.  It’s not the nicest apartment but they don’t plan to be there long and they think they can make do.  The biggest problem is that the previous tenant has apparently been evicted and she hasn’t yet returned to pick up some of her belongings.  Eventually the landlord simply removes the items and leaves them there for her to pick up, but everyone starts to wonder just what it was about this woman that has caused so much notoriety.  Then one day something awful happens.  While Rana is going about her daily routine a man comes into their apartment and attacks her.  It’s left vague what the full details of this attack are but it’s clearly a major violation and it leaves Rana with a big gash on her head.  Emad is consumed with rage and Rana is in a state where she doesn’t know what to think.  She doesn’t want to go to the police (too much trouble and she worries they will be unsympathetic) and Emad has no real idea how to support her.

I’d like to say that the traditional animosity between the United States and Iran wasn’t in the back of one’s mind when watching Asghar Farhadi films, but one can’t help but view them as an antidote to the one-dimensional view that Hollywood usually provides of Iranians and Muslim countries in general.  Of course most Iranian movies will have non-stereotypical characters in them so why do Farhadi’s films work so particularly well in this regard?  Part of it is that the characters he chooses to depict tend to be young to middle aged intellectual and essentially secular urbanites, which is more or less the demographic that will most closely match up with Western art house audiences.  Really though, I think it mostly has to do with just how much detail and humanity Farhadi injects into his characters and the situations they find themselves in.  They’re pretty much the most relatable movies set inside of repressive theocratic nations that you’re ever going to see.  I do think Farhadi knows at this point that he has an international audience and is trying to reach them and the fact that his latest film involves people who are performing one of the most famous works of American literature is probably not a coincidence.

The main theme in this movie is ultimately that of revenge; whether it’s an appropriate response and who has the right to seek it.  On some level this was also the theme of A Separation but that film was largely on the side of the avengee rather than the avenger and it looked at it in a less traditional way.  I’m probably not spoiling anything by saying that the movie ultimately comes down on the side of revenge being empty and unsatisfying in the long run, which is not a terribly original message at this point.  I’m also not entirely clear on how “The Death of a Salesman” fits in with all of this.  Granted it might have been a little on the nose for the theater troupe to have been putting on a production of “Hamlet” or “Elektra” while all this angst was going on, but Arthur Miller’s play has almost nothing to do with revenge and is about a guy who would probably be too meek to seek out revenge for much of anything.  Perhaps the theme that  Farhadi is trying to highlight is less the revenge plot and more the challenges of trying to build an ideal middle class life and how easily that can go wrong down the line.  Either way there seems to be a bit of a disconnect, but Farhadi’s grasp of human nature remains firm and he once again creates a situation that allows for deep empathy.  Of the three Asghar Farhadi movies I’ve seen this is clearly the third best, but it’s still a Farhadi movie and it’s worth seeing.

Moana(12/3/2016)

This July I did something kind of out of character: I saw a Pixar movie (Finding Dory) in the theaters.  Don’t have some huge reason for this but it was a slow week, the damn thing was on track to become the highest grossing movie of the year, and I wanted to be “in” on the conversation.  Since then I decided that 2016 was maybe the year to change things up and try to keep up with the major animated movies of the for once, in part because these was starting to look like a banner year for animation and in part because I’m just generally trying to be a little more open minded about what I see in general recently.  I don’t know that I’m going to keep on doing this in 2017, but it’s mostly been fun this year and may well result in this being the first year where I have an actual informed opinion about the Oscar for best Animated Feature for once.  As such I also went to see Kubo and the Two Strings and caught up with Zootopia and the culminations seems to have happened this week when I went to see the latest Disney sensation Moana, which for all intents and purposes seems to be their spiritual follow-up to their 2013 blockbuster Frozen even if it takes place in a decidedly different environment.

The film is set in a mythical Polynesia, specifically a fictional island called Motunui which has been isolated for thousands of years by an ingrained taboo about sailing past the coral reef that surrounds the island.  There we’re introduced to a girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the heir apparent to the island’s chiefdom.  Moana grew up listening to her grandmother (Rachel House) telling stories about how the island was isolated because eons ago a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a magical gem from the Earth goddess and unleashed a lava demon named Te Kā who took over all the other islands.  Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison) thinks these are all just fairy stories but insists that no one leave the island just the same.  Moana however, has long yearned to go out to the sea and after an encounter with some ocean magic as a young child has long felt she had been chosen for some great task away from the island and thinks that her destiny calls after a seemingly magical petulance seems to set in on the island.  Taking a leap of fate she sails out to find Maui and force him to return the magical gem to where it belongs and bring order to the island universe.

Let’s talk about Frozen for a second.  That was a movie that the world seemed to go nuts for back in 2013.  It’s one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time worldwide, but its impact was felt in an even greater way than its box office tally would suggest.  Its songs became major box office presences, it inspired a billion think pieces, and by all accounts kids watched it like crazy.  It did not, however, become a major critical Cause célèbre like some of the better Pixar movies have, and there’s a reason for that: the movie is kind of flawed.  When I finally caught up with the movie I found it intriguing in its first third or so but thought it pretty clearly lost its way in its second half.  It wasted a lot of time with that stupid snowman, it had kind of a predictable love triangle, the rules of the magic in it were not well defined, and it ended with this dumb deus ex machine where sisterhood triumphed over adversity.  That said, I totally get why it was a success.  It did some kind of bold stuff (relatively speaking) in that first third and it was well executed and ambitious in a way that kids movies haven’t been recently.  It was this big bombastic thing that seemed to be triumphantly screaming “Disney is back bitches!” and I couldn’t blame the public for being excited for that.

Moana is clearly trying to pick up on the momentum from that project and build on its strengths.  The film is another post-third-wave-feminism princess movie that’s very interested in molding a traditional Disney fairy tale story in a way that addresses the various criticisms that were leveled at the studio’s previous output.  As such out protagonist, while still technically a princess I suppose, rejects that label and insists she’s simply the daughter of the chief and it’s heavily emphasized that this means she will in fact inherit that office and all the powers and responsibilities involved and it’s never commented upon that she will be a woman in that role.   Unlike Frozen, however, this movie is less interested in messing with the basic story formula.  That movie’s introduction of sister protagonists who are sort of forced onto opposite sides of a conflict was a neat little twist on what you’d expect from a Disney narrative while Moana opts for more of a traditional heroe’s journey adventure kind of thing.  It actually reminded me a lot of this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings in that regard as both basically have their heroes stuck on their own and forced to pick up sidekicks and go on fetch quests.  Moana lacks that film’s neat stop motion animation and general samurai coolness, but it is a little more organic in the way its quest plays out and is better at hiding how episodic it is at times.

The film also followed Frozen’s lead in taking the form of a full musical like the movies of the Disney Renaissance era.  Frozen’s music was written by the musical team behind Broadway’s “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Morman” and Moana’s music was written by (among others) Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man who’s Broadway exploits have become so famous in the last year that even I’ve heard of him.  The soundtrack that he and composer Mark Mancina have come up with is, like a lot of things in Moana, obviously impressive while also feeling a bit calculated and formulaic.  There isn’t really a vocal showstopper here on a par with “Let it Go,” and the closest they come is a song called “How Far I’ll Go,” a show-tune that dutifully follows the “I Wish” formula of songs like “Part of Their World” without deviation and doesn’t really add a lot to the mix.  A lot of the rest of the music kind of sounds like it was recycled from The Lion King except with the African chants replaced with Polynesian chants… again all of this is well done and doesn’t really detract to much form the movie but I feel like it could have been done more creatively.  The numbers that really impressed were some of the film’s poppier and more comedic ones including a really amusing bit of Broadway lyricism called “You’re Welcome” performed by The Rock himself with amazing exuberance.  The other standout is a sweet glam rock song called “Shiny” performed by a giant crab voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement which has such a good pop hook that you don’t even notice that the scene it’s in doesn’t advance the story much and is basically filling for time.

So how does the film compare to the other animated films of 2016?  Well, I’ve already pointed out some of its similarities to Kubo and the Two Strings, which is in many ways less well written and structured than Moana but its milieu and ethos still probably appealed more to me.  Of the four movies that one is the most stylish and just generally the coolest and the one that felt the least need to throw in dumb comic relief for the kids.  Zootopia by contrast is probably the most original of the four and also the smartest, or at least the most relevant.  You certainly can’t accuse Disney of having coasted on a formula with that one, but out of the four it’s also probably the most prone to dumb comic relief and silliness.  There’s some cringe inducing stuff in that movie (Shakira, I’m looking at you) which does kind of make it hard for me to completely get behind it.  Of the four my favorite might actually be Finding Dory, which is certainly a movie that isn’t devoid of questionable comedy and structural contrivances, but more than any of the others it just felt like a real movie with some original ideas and resonant characters.

As for Moana, it certainly has a lot going for it.  The environmental animation is beautiful, especially in an early scene where some of the magic allows the water to be sort of parted in an interesting way as fish swim around it like the walls of an aquarium.  The movie also manages to be pretty witty and energetic.  There are a couple of dumb kiddie movie jokes here and there, but they’re not too bad for the most part, there’s nothing as consistently annoying as the snowman from Frozen anyway.  I guess you could say that the movie does almost everything right and have made a very entertaining movie that will certainly impress its target audience, but it’s going to have to start to take a few more chances if it ever wants to reach the heights that Pixar reached in the late 2000s.  I used to think that Pixar had picked up where Disney had left off back in the 90s but I’ve come to realize that what Pixar did and continues to do is actually pretty fundamentally different than what Disney has always been doing.  Disney is a company of entertainers and showmen while Pixar is a company of storytellers and filmmakers.  I tend to prefer the later but there’s certainly something to be said for a movie that taps into that old Hollywood moxie and gives the audience a fun journey to go on.

Doctor Strange(11/14/2016)

I’m no expert on comic books but I know more than your average person and one thing I’ve always noticed about the Marvel universe is that it’s filled with characters who are ostensibly stars in their own right and have their own books but who mostly exist by making cameos in other more popular superheroes books.  These are characters like The Punisher or Ghost Rider or Black Widow who probably have their fanbases and which any Marvel fan will be able to recognize and know the general background of but who generally aren’t the marquee characters who sell tons of comic books.  Doctor Strange is definitely one of these characters.  He’s had titles over the years where he was the star but they have not been published consistently over the decades like, say, The X-Men have.  Instead most people will know him from his tendency to pop up in other heroes titles.  Say that Spider-Man were to find a magical trinket of some kind on one of his adventures, more than likely there would be a scene where he seeks out Doctor Strange to explain what this trinket was, thus both giving us a bit of exposition without having to involve some random boring scientist of occult expert.  Consequently, he’s a hero I don’t know a lot about given that most of my exposure to him involves single page cameos, but Marvel Studios is nothing if not adept at making obscure properties into box office hits and that’s exactly what they intend to do with the new feature length adaptation Doctor Strange.

The film focuses on a man named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly skilled and well paid surgeon and also something of an arrogant ass.  This hubris does catch up with him however when he starts texting patient dossiers while driving his Lamborghini around a mountain road and ends up in a huge wreck.  He survives the accident but is left with major nerve damage in his hands which leaves him unable to perform precise surgeries and thus unemployed and aimless.  In his desperation he goes to Nepal, where he’s heard that there’s some sort of genius who has caused miraculous recoveries in the past.  There he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an expert of the mystical arts who is thousands of years old and massively powerful.  The Ancient One and her accolade Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) see some potential in Strange and invite him to train in the mystical arts at their sanctum and Strange uses the same photographic memory that made him such a great surgeon to quickly become an expert at mysticism, powers that he desperately needs because The Ancient One’s order is under threat of being destroyed by an apostate mystic named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has joined forces with an evil demon from another realm named Dormammu to cause all sorts of evil and destruction.

If that plot sounds familiar it’s because Strange’s character arc bears a strong resemblance to Tony Stark’s arc from the original Iron Man except with our hero starting as an arrogant doctor (one that rather suspiciously resembles the title character from “House, M.D. in his mannerisms) instead of an arrogant industrialist.  From there the film follows a fairly typical superhero origin pattern, although it is perhaps notable that this hero is learning his skills from a mentor rather than coming to terms with his new powers on his own.  Of course The Ancient One’s reasons for accepting Strange as an accolade in the first place seem rather suspect.  Strange does not make a very good first impression when he arrives at the sanctum though his poor attitude and limited grasp on what the mystic arts are in the first place.  She seems to be persuaded to take him on for no real reason and her decision to take him or anyone else on as an accolade seems rather odd given that Kaecilius is already out and on the run as the film begins, which begs the question of exactly how long of a timeframe the film takes place over and why The Ancient One isn’t doing more to stop him over the course of Strange’s training.

So, clearly Doctor Strange isn’t exactly what you’d call a great work of literature but it makes up for this in a number of ways.  Doctor Strange has long been one of the more visually original superhero comic books what with its crazy interdimensional travel and spells and the movie does a pretty decent job of living up to that.  The various spells look very good onscreen and director Scott Derrickson (who mostly has a background making horror movies) does a pretty good job of adding a sort of logic to the craziness onscreen .  The standout visual is of course the one hinted at in the trailers where urban areas are bend out of shape like an M. C. Escher painting by way of Christopher Nolan.  It should perhaps be noted that this is the first Marvel movie I opted to see in 3D and I think it’s the first movie in general I’ve seen in that format since Gravity.  This isn’t exactly the most vital use of 3D I’ve ever seen, but it is pretty neat and this is probably the way the movie should be seen, especially during the aforementioned city bending sequence.

This is kind of an odd movie to defend.  I’ve spent nearly a decade whining that Marvel movies have an unfortunate cookie-cutter quality and yet here I am just throwing up my hands and saying “whatever, it’s fun” in the face of one of their most derivative efforts yet.  I think part of that is timing.  The last Marvel movie was Captain America: Civil War, which I’m told only came out six months ago but it kind of feels like it’s been an eternity since then.  What’s more we haven’t gotten a solo origin movie from them since last year’s Ant-Man and before that we haven’t gotten one since… geez, since the first Captain America movie.  The movie also has the befit of coming out at a time when we are richly in need of escapism.  I watched the movie the weekend before the presidential election when I was a bundle of nerves and as I write this I now know the outcome and… oh boy, I think we’re going to need Marvel more than ever in the next four years.