Tag Archives: Movies

Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part Two)

This entry will be significantly shorter than my last ramble but I intend to keep this topic alive because I feel it is important.  If we hope to maintain an open and honest media, even if it is a blog that is a barely-trodden corridor of the city-sized labyrinth of Internet rags, we have to get the word out whenever we feel there is some sort of system in place that exists to handicap or even eliminate our ability to share our own thoughts on a product released by a major media corporation.

A long-time studio tactic that has been called into scrutiny more and more of late is the review embargo.  A review embargo is a prohibition on the early release of reviews and detailed commentary before a certain specified date after early screenings or pre-release copies of a product are made available to critics.  These individuals are usually your standard mainstream newspaper critic but their ranks also encompass a rollcall of columnists from other “trusted” sources.  Often coming with a written agreement to the studio’s terms and even the occasional non-disclosure agreement, these embargoes are almost always a red flag for me.

While I often prefer to avoid citing any corporate-fed media source, I think critic Marshall Fine said it best on the Huffington Post; “It’s all about controlling information — and bad word of mouth.  This kind of embargo is almost never associated with a movie which is expected to be a critical hit. (source)”  I think this pretty much hits the proverbial nail on the head.  If a movie or game is expected to rock everyone’s world, why keep them out of the loop as long as possible?  Sometimes these review embargoes can be in place up to as late as the Wednesday before the release of a film, intentionally buried in the middle of the workweek.

I stated in my previous diatribe (for lack of a better word) that as products become more expensive, it becomes more necessary to hide or silence any negative press for as long as possible to get the cash of early adopters and opening weekend addicts who want to beat the barrage of inconsiderate spoilers that will inevitably flood the Web by Saturday evening.  However, I believe this tactic is starting to lose its effectiveness.  Consumers are growing more and more savvy to the biases and manipulations of major media sources and are less tolerant than ever of being conned into buying a product that is knowingly-bad, the flaws of which being intentionally hid from them in the hopes that they will spend first and ask questions later.

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Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part One)

Before my rant begins, let me be clear by stating I, in-no-way, consider myself a “professional journalist”.  In fact, I am merely a journalist in the most literal sense of the world in that I am a “person who writes” as an entirely independent commentator and reviewer.  I am more of a “hobbyist journalist” than a paid contributor or a critic contracted to any major media outlet.  To be entirely honest, I will never consider taking such a job without the express condition that I will be absolutely free to offer my own opinion on any product regardless of what others may feel about it.  So, with that capricious disclaimer out of the way, let me express to you why I am so pissed off at, sick of, and downright appalled by the major media both online and in the dying legacy sources…

When I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, even at a very young age, I adored watching Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.  They were my first exploration into the world of film criticism and gave me a stronger perspective of how film works on us; How movies should and do affect the audience and how these effects influence our attitudes towards popular culture at large.  Have no illusions, no matter how objective a critic may claim to be, we all have biases that manifest in one form or another.  Take myself, for instance: I really dislike (and often despise) how CGI has affected storytelling in movies and the filmmaking process as a whole.  I find it funny that movies like Avatar and the recent Star Wars movies actually look like video games and, as if it were some Freudian expression, we then get a movie in which Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage actually battle giant video game characters from the 80’s (regardless of the quality of that film).  That bias does subconsciously affect both my suspension of disbelief and my subjective reaction to special effects as they happen on screen.  My brain processes an 80’s action flick with a real exploding car differently than a massive CGI monstrosity oozing across a screen.  So, when I see most CG special effects I tend to be put off of them and it does change my interpretation of the qualities of the film I am watching.

So, given that I will expect all critics to express their own biases in any report or review they scribe for any site out there.  Even things like political leanings may change one’s interpretation of the content of any media, which is fine as long as these personal determinations are clear to the reader/watcher in some context.  However, where I draw the line is when a reviewer expressly defines to the audience how they should feel about something.  I’m sure I have exercised this fallacy in the past at some point, possibly even recently, and I do appreciate being called out for it whenever possible.  It is important to avoid cognitive dissonance in general, but when you are trying to convey feelings and reactions to media, as trivial as that media may be, if you are unable to provide some objective observation without skewing things to a bent, the factual information provided about the film (basic plot, names of actors, locations, etc.) that may prove useful to the reader or watcher becomes overshadowed with their implicit biases that fire subconsciously during the consumption of said review.

In the past year, we have seen more and more reviews that rely solely on identity politics as qualitative variables to determine the value of a product.  It’s important to accept that all films, video games, TV shows, comic books, and novels are just that: products.  The studios releasing a film do not care about how their product makes you feel, they only want your money.  That’s their job.  Art is subjective and it does act on us whether we want it to or not or even realize it.  This is now apparently being used by major studios and the media to manipulate and even attack potential consumers based solely on their reactions and opinions on something as minuscule in value as a movie trailer.

I hate to say it, but I can’t help but feel like media outlets are using some manipulation tactics to drum up grassroots support for products before their release.  I can’t be certain that is the motivation, but that is certainly happening.  I would say, if you have a movie with a message, that’s fine.  However, a movie that should be accessible, enjoyable and just be entertaining like Ghostbusters or Black Panther being used as a marketing gimmick for studios is not uncommon, but their being brandished as some sort of weapon against potential consumers is unacceptable behavior by a major media company and I do feel this is going to backfire.  This may seem like a new trend, however, these promotional tactics have been used in the past to manipulate audiences into seeing movies.  Sensationalism sells and Hollywood knows it.  This goes back to horror films that were sold as “Banned in ‘x country’!” and “The movie your parents don’t want you to see!”  This isn’t a new tactic and consumers must be wise about how they are being marketed to.

The key to all pop culture is enjoyment.  For every truly awful film, there are fans (I know I have a few bad movies I like) and that’s okay.  It’s just important to remember that not everyone will always share your sentiments towards a particular movie, TV show or game.  This is not going to change in an age where subjective ideals reflected in various mediums are treated dogmatically or even as empirical truths.  So today, Hollywood and major media outlets have begun campaigns to lock out and outright attack independent reviewers for sharing their opinions.  This isn’t exactly a new trend, but it is absolutely obvious why it is being done.  With movies becoming more and more expensive to make, burnout for franchises like Star Wars and various superhero movies at an all-time high and fan cynicism hitting new depths, studios have an incentive to make their movie appear as promising as possible.  If emotional manipulation of consumers is what it will take, then dammit, they’ll do just that.

There is an active campaign by Hollywood to discredit and block reviewers who aren’t part of the mainstream press.  The reasons for this are not entirely transparent, but an obvious point could be they realize that independent pop culture journalists are not beholden to any major corporation or media outlet which shares corporate ownership of, or has some ad deal with, a studio or publisher.  As a result, there is less skin in the game when it comes to liking or disliking a movie, therefore their opinions are likely to be more honest.  If I’m not getting a check from Disney, I have no incentive to write a positive review of one of their films if I do not actually enjoy it.  The same goes for any form of media.  So, it behooves a major corporation to be methodical in how they deal with negative reviews.  For instance, a Rotten Tomatoes score can be called a “snapshot” into the quality of a movie, but it in no way actually provides a sound rating of what critics thought of the movie, only an average of critics who liked or disliked the movie in a thumbs up or thumbs down sort of way.  A movie with a 75% doesn’t mean the movie got 3 out of 4 stars, it only means 75% of critics who reviewed the movie liked it.  It’s also important to note that the site deceptively divides reviews based on “trusted” critics versus everyone else.  As a result, it isn’t uncommon to see a dramatic dichotomy between fans’ and journalists’ respective scores, especially in the case of projects with a lot of money on the line.

Because of this, we are starting to see fan ratings of movies become more and more denigrated and with that so are the independent reviewers who just write a quick blurb on IMDB or run their own blog.  The “fans do not matter” mantra that we know Hollywood has held up for decades has never rung truer.  In the end, most of these big budget movies will make more money on merchandising than overall ticket sales anyway, especially in the case of major brands like Marvel.  It’s doubtful a producer is going to scoff at a bad review of a mediocre MCU flick like Thor: Ragnarok, instead they’ll laugh their brand licensing all the way to the bank.  They already have your money, they certainly do not have to care if you liked it or not.  This is why fans’ scores are becoming more and more important on websites.  A reason a lot of sites are removing comment options and disabling ratings for advertised products is that fan ratings, comments and reviews work.  They are proven to have a significant impact the perception of a film and they do have a natural effect on the way people see the final product, even if it is in retrospect.  A person who liked The Last Jedi in the moment but disliked it more and more upon reflection (such as myself) is less likely to jump on the merchandising bandwagon for the long term, so it is essential that my views on such a product be kept hidden as best as possible to ensure maximum sales returns.

I know all of this may come off as a more than a little jaded but given these past few years of nonstop fan-shaming and vitriol coming from creators, actors, etc, towards detractors of various entertainment products who are merely sharing their own opinions, I do not think this is unwarranted.  I do not agree with every view put out there, but I also do not want anyone to feel like they should be afraid to offer that very view.  This concept that one is not allowed to have an opinion of a product because of entirely arbitrary or superficial reasons is asinine and unacceptable.  It’s time to start treating these little pieces of entertainment as they are, oft-nonsensical distractions that entertain at the moment.  If we allow our tastes to be tied to what major corporate outlets dictate, the public loses its autonomy, and in the end, our choices in what entertainment is out there for us.

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Comic Quick Review – Avengers Infinity War: Prelude #1 (Updated!)

It’s safe to say the comics industry has been struggling over the past few years.  Sales are down, turmoil brews in the form of a cornucopia of controversies, characters are being replaced and storylines are intersecting to the point of incomprehensibility.  Marvel has been the tip of the spear here and the fallout has been deafening.  I have not been a fan of Marvel’s comics for a while now (not since the mid-aughts), as I think their storytelling abilities have been on a pretty steady decline as their writing staff was steadily replaced over a period of about ten years, leaving only a handful of cynical veterans behind.

Despite their more recent failings as a comic book company (with mainline books selling well-below 30k in units shipped), Marvel has shown consistent resilience in their movie brand.  Even the weakest of Marvel Studios’ films often have moments of enjoyment and the focus seems so far to have less about weaving together a complex universe and more about being fun adventure movies; Which I suppose is all a movie fan can really ask of them.  So, in preparation for the hotly-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, I decided to give their tie-in comic “Prelude” a read.

Avengers: Infinity War - Prelude #1 (2018; Marvel)

Prelude is a combination of three things: A lead-in from the end of movie “Captain America: Civil War”, a tie-in to the upcoming “Black Panther” flick, and lastly a way to connect these two movies to the impending galactic struggle against Thanos in the titular 2018 Summer blockbuster.  The story opens with Cap and Stark’s confrontation at the end of the movie “Civil War” and sloppily leads into Cap’s rescue of his allies from a Hydra prison.  Then bounces haplessly to an over-long, boring exposition scene about Bucky as told by a Wakandan doctor that goes on for roughly seven pages!  Lastly we get more flopping around to Cap-and-company busting up a terrorist arms deal selling Chitari weapons.  If you didn’t gather it from my hastily-thrown-together synopsis, this book is a hot mess!

The sequential art is all over the place.  It switches between dull, mannequin-esque posing to rough, sloppy sequential action scenes.  Things happen quickly from panel to panel and it is often difficult to tell just what is going on without a second or even third look.  The seemingly-random series of events is merely a rush to force all of the plots of these films together while trying to introduce us to the Wakandan scientist Shuri, who is simultaneously the most boring and most unlikable character in the issue, due to her long monologing and sheer, abrasive arrogance (or should I say “the writer’s arrogance?”).

As for the art: It’s bad.  It looks like roughs used for storyboarding; not print-ready art.  The often-fanart levels of ugliness on display is unsurprising given Marvel’s present state, but seeing it come together like this in a comic that is meant to tie into the superior Cinematic Universe just makes it stand out even more.  This is the crux of this book’s problem, too.  I have a feeling the very existence of Prelude may only prove to intensify the apparent rift in competency between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Comics’ publishing arm.  The contrast on display is glaring with art that varies in quality from page to page to visual storytelling that is occasionally confusing.  The writing is a bundle of exposition clumsily written into page-filling dialogue balloons as if to reassure us that these are the words of the characters we are reading and not an anonymous fanboy’s drunk IMDB plot synopsis.

So much is wrong with this obvious cash-in, and I definitely can’t give it a recommendation.  This is the comic book equivalent of a movie trailer.  It’s slashed to bits, vague, clunky, and I cannot foresee anyone reading it and finding it enhancing their enjoyment of the upcoming movies in any real way.  This is just shelf-bait hoping to grab disgruntled comics fans who are more excited about the upcoming movies than they are about anything pouring out of Marvel’s presses these days.

UPDATE – 2/16/2018:

Less than a month after writing this review, I forgot I had even read this book.  So, there’s that.

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Batman & Robin: Is It Really That Bad..?

For nearly two decades, a popular contender for “Worst Movie of All Time” from multiple mainstream media outlets has been Joel Schumacher’s 1997 bomb, Batman & Robin.  The question I’ve since asked myself is, how bad is this movie, exactly?  Well, I will say I have watched Batman & Robin several times and will assert, right off the bat: It isn’t bad enough to be considered “Worst Movie of All Time”, but believe me when I say, it’s pretty bad.

First it’s important to lay out some context; Batman & Robin may seem anomalous by today’s standards, with its neon colors, flashy costumes, bad one-liners and cheesy performances, but this was the late 90’s, people!  If you did not grow up in the period, from about 1997 to 2003, we witnessed a virtual legion of over-the-top, goofy, brightly-colored pooch-screws that dominated cinemas.  Some of these contemporary flicks were passable; Most of them were terrible.  However, for its time, B&R was not really all that out of place aesthetically or in its tone.

Now, let’s paint an objective picture of Batman & Robin before we delve into everything wrong with this money pit.  First off, Joel Schumacher was not a bad director before this film more or less ruined his career.  He did make the (I would say ‘classic’) film Falling Down starring Michael Douglas, the sleeper thriller Flatliners, the dramatic courtroom epic A Time to Kill and the arguably-underrated 8mm.  He isn’t a slouch or an underdog in spite of what one may think of these movies, and yes, I DID like Flatliners.  So, hot off the heels of the successful-but-underwhelming Batman Forever (which primarily rode the popularity of Jim Carey at the time), Schumacher did not do much differently with this final entry in the 80’s-90’s Batman Saga.  The tone was the same, the ideas were similar and the bleakness of Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City was replaced with one that was more cartoonish and reminiscent of the ’60’s TV series; whether or not this is a good thing is debatable.  Now, the casting was more than a little questionable.  It’s obvious there was some hesitation on the part of the casting director to bring in someone who is too “different”, and they wanted stars who were recognizable to help Warner Bros. attach butts to theater seats.  So, by that standard it made sense to cast Alicia Silverstone (who was still riding her Clueless fame), Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was top-billed) and George Clooney (who’s portrayal of a passionate pediatrician on the hit series ER made him a super-star).  I think it is safe to declare it a fact that Batman & Robin was handcrafted to be a hit; or, at least, that’s what WB hoped…

Now, for a more subjective perspective, let us consider what made Batman tick as a series leading up to the 1989 Burton film.  The comics took a much darker turn in the 80’s, focusing more on the societal conflict of the presence of Batman as a vigilante than it ever had before, and the vision of Batman went from blue and purple to grey and black.  Why?  It was a sign of the times, a shift in the idea of comics as the age of the average reader increased, but it was also a reflection of the period.  As crime continued to rise throughout the 70’s, the following Neon Decade wasn’t all Lauper and stretch pants.  Dramas and crime thrillers turned to brutality as an answer to the projection of inner cities from news, movies and TV, and films like Robocop satirized the extremes we could have been headed toward.  Yet, this did not translate well to the big screen if I was to be entirely honest.  Most of the movies from this time were too dark and often gross in their depictions of grit.  The few films that did work landed because of the underlying idea within their plots being more than just bleakness, offering us characters and stories that reach beyond the cynical depiction of a collapsing social contract.  Where does Batman fit in to all of this pretentious rambling?  Well, the 1989 Batman was great.  It had that darker mood we expected from the time but it shared it in a way that was still humorous.  The evil, murderous Joker (played masterfully by Jack Nicholson) injected memorable moments into the film, his bright purple getup and wild antics being a stark contrast to the drab, unpleasant aesthetic of Gotham City.  Even the city’s ray of hope in Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) was somewhat shadowed in suspicion, especially for fans who knew what Dent was to become in the future.  Sadly, we never got that Two-Face.

Things looked good going into Batman Returns, but Burton took things a little too far.  While I actually like many elements of this first sequel, I recognize it as a dark departure to a story that was far too disturbing for young kids and far too… ‘Burton’ for many adults.  It has gained some cult status for this reason and I think deserves a second look to those who haven’t seen it since the early 90’s.  The biggest mistake following the criticism of ‘Returns’ was the over-correction on the part of Warner Bros. and their board room full of aging, out-of-touch executive producers.  Their attitude was contrasting the reception of Batman Returns with that of the masterwork that was Batman: The Animated Series.  Their solution was to turn the Dark Knight’s film franchise into a live-action cartoon, apparently having not spent ten minutes watching the actual TV show they thought they were planning to mimic.  If they had, they’d have realized that Batman: TAS was a well-thought-out, sophisticated, smart and surprisingly-mature show.  That is NOT what we got with Batman Forever…  Now, don’t get me wrong, Schumacher gets some blame in this as well, and it’s obvious he didn’t put up much of a fight because “Batman Forever” has studio stink all over it.  Therefore, I can safely skip over most of “Forever” because it is effectively a cinematic dead zone.  It isn’t quite terrible enough to dwell on, but it was an odd attempt to wring Tim Burton’s style out of a director who really only worked on thrillers, dramas and INXS music videos while tossing in a bit of cartoon antics to make things seem a little softer.  The movie did okay, but that was more due to Jim Carey than anything else, as he was THE hot comedy commodity at the time.

So, this brings us to Batman & Robin.  The problems with this one are lengthy, so bear with me.  First the movie is ugly; very, very ugly.  Every scene is poorly-lit, over-exposed and oddly-designed.  Dutch angles and wide-angle lenses are used in excess (a trend at the time) and every single scene in the movie is way, way too long.  Dialogue was inundated with bickering, pointless banter, and face-palmingly-bad “zingers” grumbled, grunted and bawled with comical vocal inflections by obviously-bored actors.  The forced tone of this film reeked of action-figure-friendly filmmaking with a tone-deaf attempt at giving us a more adventurous, exciting universe.  It did have everything WB could have wanted out of a money-printing marketing fountain, but what the actual filmmakers seemed to have forgotten was how to tell a story.  The plans of the villains were paper-thin and their actions often made little sense, each character’s place in the events that transpire is awkward and poorly-planned, and events jump around as if somebody edited the movie using a roulette wheel… with a ping-pong ball…  while drunk.  Also, is it even possible for a story with this many ‘lead characters’ could even work in this sort of film?  Large casts can do okay when they are tied together with a tight script (i.e. Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption), but here, since every line is belted and nauseating, this many overpaid presumed-to-be-adults on screen just becomes distracting.

So, most importantly, is Batman & Robin even fun to watch?  I would have to say ‘no’.  The excess on the screen, complete with skyboarding, lame ‘girl power’ with Silverstone’s motorcycle racing and the contrived turn as Batgirl, and bizarre and mostly-confusing sexual undertones, drag it way down.  On top of that, it’s easy to forget how boring this movie is.  Sure, it has action, explosions, yelling of one-liners and attempts at dramatic tension, but man is it dull.  More than half of the movie involves tight shots of characters talking and often arguing (insert dutch angle).  The heroes deliver their bland lines over each other quickly, but with no rhythm, so there’s nothing keeping an engaging pace with the dialogue (not to mention there being nothing of substance to discuss).  To contrast that, our villains talk slowly with strange, ill-advised puns.  It doesn’t make sense because there is no consistency through the film, so each dialogue scene either spins your head or leaves you shouting “Just finish your damn lines already!”

However, where does that place Batman & Robin in the grand scheme of things?  I will be clear in stating it is certainly not the worst movie ever made.  It isn’t even the worst movie I’ve seen in theaters in my lifetime!  As far as blockbusters go, it’s bad, but it isn’t as obnoxious and aggravating as Bay’s Transformers movies, or as cynical and self-indulgent as anything Adam Sandler has starred in.  It is just bad in the most obvious ways possible; bad dialogue, bad visuals, bad acting, bad story.  But nothing really drags it down below that standard ‘bad’ that we all know.  If you disagree that’s cool, but do go sit through Pink Flamingos, The Fat Spy and anything from PureFlix and get back to me on that sentiment.

I usually try not to give movies precise scores but for this I will say Batman & Robin sits safely at around a 3 out of 10.  I think it fails to be interesting enough to be so scorned.  It’s like calling Might No. 9 the worst game of all time; it’s terrible, but not in any particularly special way.  It fails at everything, but only in a way where it doesn’t really do anything right, as opposed to something like “The Room” which managed to fail at just about every aspect of filmmaking outside of simply getting the thing released.  Many people (myself included) love Wiseau’s Magnum Opus, yet hate Batman & Robin.  I guess Batman & Robin is so despised because it just quite isn’t bad enough to be loved…

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Quick Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

After a brief scare in 2014, fans of Studio Ghibli let out a sigh of relief as fears that their favorite animation house would be closing their doors were squelched by official statements declaring the news to be a mere rumor. However, in recent years the famous brand has certainly slowed in their efforts and their latest outing, ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’, a CG animated TV series released to Amazon Prime video, has sparked much interest but has left filmmakers and long time fans to question the direction the company has taken. Thus, a few of the talents from the ranks of Ghibli moved on to start a new chapter in Studio Ponoc.

Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is a light adventure that definitely follows in the footsteps of the Master, Miyazaki-san. It has all of the things he’s known for, yet is missing a few of the things that made many of his movies instant classics. However, all things considered, this is a skillful, beautiful and fun fantasy that will certainly appeal to all ages.

The story follows the titular Mary, a young girl who has moved to her grandmother’s home in the English countryside and is awaiting her parents’ arrival. However, her attempts to connect with others in this new landscape are appearing futile. In desperation she begins to pour out her heart to a black cat, and upon following this cat into a thick wood, she finds a glowing flower. Deciding to pluck it and hold as a keepsake, she soon discovers there’s more to this flower than she ever could have imagined…

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows many of the tropes from other films released by Ponoc’s predecessor, Studio Ghibli. The strange yet amazing fantasy world of Spirited Away, a magical ‘Castle’ in the sky, a stranger who befriends our heroine in their darkest hour… It’s all there. In fact, in many ways this is a patchwork of stories retold from a slightly more modernized perspective. Much of the whimsy has been replaced with vigor and the lead character Mary does seem to have a real personality outside of being a “spunky kid”. She reacts comically and believably to the strange occurrences around her and her first interactions with some of the odd, otherworldly characters bring some of the film’s best moments.

The Alice In Wonderland premise blended with a MacGuffin and some brief but satisfying action scenes come together to make a nice movie that only lacks in a few areas. Firstly, the film comes to a edge so often then pulls back. We get an idea of Mary’s potential with magic, but we rarely see her do anything. In fact, the apparent goal is to show how she can overcome these challenges without magic, but that is all negated in the end. In the meantime, the villains’ plans, which are never made entirely clear outside of a vague description, never really lay out any consequences. We are just meant to accept that their goals would cause some harm by having them take some “drastic measures” to achieve their ends.

That said, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an enjoyable movie and should give fans of the classic Studio Ghibli style hope that Studio Ponoc may be the fresh new face in cinematic Japanese animation. They certainly have a knack for it. This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with some of the best animation and art I have seen from Japan in several years. The writing is quite good, with characters that are likable without being annoying and real human moments that are often lost in animated fantasies. I give this one a recommendation, especially for families with kids. This is a great start into this world of family-friendly animation from Japan and I think fans of Miyazaki’s work would likely enjoy this one as well, though it fails to live up to the high standards set by some of his notable classics.

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Pop Thoughts: Where ‘The Last Jedi’ Lost the Plot

It is to be expected in modern cinema for a movie franchise to bloat then implode like a giant stellar body; crushed under its own weight.  “The Force Awakens”, despite its derivative structure, gave long time-fans of the beloved Star Wars franchise hope that a rebirth in the Universe they love could be imminent.  However, the backlash to “The Last Jedi” is palpable and there may be an objective storytelling explanation to this…

I feel the issue with “The Last Jedi” is it fails to really land on any of the plots laid before it.  It feels almost disjointed from Episode VII entirely and transforms into a series of branching subplots that flow more similar to one of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations than any cohesive Star Wars adventure.  In the Original Trilogy it was common for characters to be split up then reunite.  It had become a trope of the series, but all causes seemed united in the end.  Even Luke, who abandons the Rebellion to pursue his Jedi teachings and to confront Darth Vader alone as part of a greater calling, ultimately returns to fight alongside his allies by the third film.

In Episode VIII it seems like they wanted to follow the same path but without any guidance or endpoint.  The big climax of the movie is a short, almost lifeless battle that, while beautifully shot on a planet covered in salt, is a ripple in a puddle instead of the needed tidal wave.  Most of the characters are out of the action and the events feel motionless and without spirit.  It all unfolds with no gravitas; no explosiveness.  Despite urgency, hurriedness and the illusion of a fatal threat, at no point is any real danger properly conveyed.  I think this is where “The Last Jedi” really falls flat.  There is so much going on that none of it feels like it really matters.

The cluttered events of the film all overshadow each other, resulting in no one character really having a moment of great strength.  Instead, the movie is flooded with superfluous characters, one of each archetype, and none of them have actions that are all that impactful.  A touch that made Star Wars so relatable was that the heroes were not super-soldiers; They were hermits, farmers and criminals.  They were not established icons of the galaxy who did their jobs well; They were regular people who rose to greatness.  “The Force Awakens” had this and was (for the most part) successful in how it developed Finn and Rey.  In TLJ, neither of these two characters contribute much on their own and instead the writers egregiously gave several heroic sacrifices that would have been great turns for lead characters to faceless new “heroes” we did not know or care about because the writers (and probably Disney) did not want to risk killing off a named character.  This toothlessness is a massive weakness to this movie.

Lastly, I think the biggest problem with TLJ is Rey.  As a character, she’s fine; and Daisy Ridley gives a solid performance when she is actually given a chance, but she is used so poorly that it ultimately becomes a waste.  The writers give her no flaws, they give her no real moments of weakness and the one turn that could have been amazing (occurring when she confronts Kylo Ren in person) is avoided because she has to be good.  Not only is she good, but she is spectacular at everything.  Luke Skywalker had this problem, too.  He was a solid shot with a gun, an ace pilot, and a Jedi savant but at least he did appear to work for most of this, especially when it came to the Force.  Rey is just good at everything for no reason and because of this massive writing flaw, everything on screen acts against her or happens to her and she is always outside of the action, even when she’s in it!  It’s a trope that is common in movies that I and some others call “Lead Character Invincibility”, where nothing too gross or horrific can happen directly to a character if the writers feel it is essential to make them pure or perfect.  Rey’s been labeled by fans a “Mary Sue”, but I’m not even sure if that’s entirely accurate.  She’s more like an avatar.  She exists in the movie as a perfect Jedi hero for fans to project themselves onto.  As a result she must be a blank slate.  She can’t have too much personality or too much of an apparent emotional connection or turn, otherwise it can be hard to sell her as an action figure.

..and that’s the the major issue isn’t it?  The heroes and villains in “The Last Jedi” are all just action figures.  None of them feel solid.  They all sort of flop around and do their action figure things in their action figure vehicles.  There are great action scenes but we aren’t talking about set pieces, we’re talking about characters.  They’re all self-insert shells to set up moments of greatness that never really pay off for any one character.  The only moments where any of the characters actually come across as living things in this Universe are when the badass pilot Poe Dameron takes out an array of anti-cruiser cannons from a ship all by himself and when the villain Kylo Ren (a character that steals the show thanks to Adam Driver’s great performance) is faced with a moment of conflict when facing Rey.  Everything else is set dressing.  Even Luke Skywalker’s triumphant return is executed lazily and blandly.

I do not think Episode VIII is a bad movie.  It’s certainly an entertaining action film but it is not a strong entry in this franchise.  It is too lacking in character or personality to really matter.  Everything is shallow and lifeless, like a scene in one of the many Star Wars coloring books on sale right now in your local grocery store for just $2.99!

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Film Review – Coco (2017)

Coco (2017; Disney/Pixar) I will often sleep on a movie before writing about it to clear myself of any immediate emotional reaction and give a truly honest review. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Coco. I knew it was going to be a visual spectacle based on what I’ve seen. I recalled it is themed after the mythos surrounding the Mexican tradition of the Dia de los Muertos, there’s a boy and a guitar… and that was about all I knew. I just hadn’t stayed abreast of the movie. I generally enjoy Pixar’s work (with a few exceptions), but I asserted right after leaving the theater, and still believe as of writing this review, that Coco is Pixar’s best movie yet.

The story centers around Miguel, a boy who is growing up in a family of shoemakers, a tradition passed down through three generations inspired by his great, great grandmother who so hated music that she banned it from her home. Think Rev. Moore from Footloose, except with a little less depressing motivation. No, she was so angered by her husband leaving the family to pursue his career in music that she decided it was never to be part of her home. She raised her daughter to pass down this hatred of the art and it had worked for years, only now there is a problem; Miguel is not just a lover of music, but an aspiring musician himself, driven by his love for classical Mexican actor and singer Ernesto de la Cruz.

All that is the setup and what happens from there is both insane and inspiring. To make a long story short, Miguel needs a guitar to enter a talent show and out of last-minute desperation, he steals the guitar from the tomb of his favorite actor believing he is the star’s heir and a as a result, he becomes cursed. He is trapped in the world of the dead on the Day of the Dead and while he can see his family, they cannot see him. He crosses over into the afterlife being the only living person in a massive city that spans miles and miles and towers into the sky. Here he must receive a blessing from a family member to return home. He teams up with a lowly, nearly forgotten spirit who is desperately trying to connect with the other side before he fades away for good, and thus begins their adventure.

Coco is about family, tradition, defiance and forgiveness. It is, hands down, the most heartwarming, well-crafted story in Pixar’s repertoire There was an inspiration here; I do not know what it is for certain, but there was a drive in Coco that surpassed the cynicism of modern movies and delivered a beautiful, powerful and moving adventure that is actually for everyone. Unlike most modern family movies that still lean more towards the kids, this is a film that really should be passed down as a timeless classic alongside The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and yes; I am saying it’s as good as those movies). In fact, I think I would say Coco is the best movie of 2017 and possibly the best movie so far this decade.

Everything you see is crafted with care. The little touches of light, the subtle facial movements, the voices, the traditional style that mimics classic films by directors like John Houston and Michael Curtiz, and just the modernized-but-still-classic story. The arc is painted perfectly and while I did see a few of the beats coming, when it all comes together it is a satisfying, albeit a little contrived, conclusion.

Coco’s animation is crafted with such astonishing detail that it makes one wonder how what they did was even possible. Every piece of fabric is tactile, it’s textures are drawn threat-by-thread, the one moment where water really makes an appearance is so convincing that it feels almost too real. Each character could have been rendered as flat, cartoonish caricatures but instead have fine details around the face giving that traditionally-Disney style a dramatic makeover that can probably only truly be appreciated on the big screen. Every wrinkle, hair and fold of fabric moves, adding a dynamic and naturalistic visual tone to the every scene. Even the dead, with their painted skulls, are not simply colored patterns painted on white, animated bones, but the bones themselves have texture, variations in color, and the paint is rough along the surface of each face, as though it wasn’t just slapped onto a piece of plastic. All of these seemingly-minor details add depth and further meaning to the world.

While Coco is not technically an animated musical, it is about music, so there are a few songs here and there where characters perform in front of crowds, on stage or even just for one another in lovely character moments. I play guitar casually, so I can tell you that each chord, movement of the hand and pluck of each string is unbelievably masterful in its execution. The moments of bombast in the few big song numbers are reminiscent of old westerns and the classics of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

See Coco. See it in theaters. See it where it counts because this will not be the same on Blu-ray, even if you are sporting a 72” 4K monstrosity in your living room. That is not what this sort of movie is made for. This is a theatrical film through and through, and everyone should be in the seats. Coco topped the box office this opening weekend and appears to be on track to become one of Pixar’s big successes, and it deserves every penny.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Marvel Studios)

To say the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had highs and lows is an understatement, but Thor: Ragnarok, despite being at one point the highest-rated Marvel movie to date on the “infinitely reliable” Rotten Tomatoes (*scoff*), is a baffling exercise, the meat of which resembles the floor of a Golden Corral after it is raided by an Oprah studio audience that had been infected with the Rage Virus from 28 Days Later.  I walked away from Thor 3 not so much angry but rather confused.  I was entertained in the moment, for sure, but upon some reflection I realize just how indescribably-bizarre a specimen this movie really is.

Thor: Ragnarok follows the titular Norse icon as he finds himself in a strange new world and must fight his way out to return to Asgard and save his home before Hela can overtake the throne.  He is forced to face off with his old ally the Hulk in gladiatorial combat, team up with his selfish and deceitful brother Loki, and partner with a former Valkyrie-turned-slaver to defeat the embodiment of Death and rescue the people of his homeland.

In terms of the Marvel films we’ve seen so far, Ragnarok is more “Guardians of the Galaxy” than “Winter Soldier”.  It is filled with classic rock tracks and slow-motion montages and has a neon flair that is reminiscent of Gunn’s adaptations of the cult comics.  Where this does work is it sets a consistent tone for a movie, the problem is it sets that tone for a completely different film than the one you are watching.  The best way I can describe Thor: Ragnarok is, if you took one of the better, non-comical MCU movies from recent years and at the end of every seminal moment you insert a clip from The Family Guy.  Nearly every scene in the movie, including those that are supposed to have some weight to them, is punctuated with a splash of completely unnecessary humor.

To make matters worse, we aren’t talking Mel Brooks levels of comedy here, either; The man who wrote a chase scene involving a six-foot blunt has far too much pathos for this.  This is bad, sitcom-levels of comedy.  Thor is filled with half-written stinger jokes and pointless rambling dialogue that serves no purpose other than to pad the movie out and shutter a scene because the writers and director didn’t know how to end it; so instead of a resolution or smooth transition, we get a one-liner or a pratfall.  It is also painfully obvious that the director, Taika Waititi, thinks he is a whole lot funnier as a comedic director than he really is and the end result is embarrassing and completely cringeworthy.

A positive I will give Thor is the acting is pretty good, albeit occasionally goofy.  I am about 90% certain that most of the worst acting moments of the movie fall into the laps of the writers and director more so than the actors, though.  Hemsworth still makes the perfect Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki is still pretty solid, though he spends some parts of the movie trying to come off as badass and it really does not suit him.  Mark Ruffalo reprises his role as Bruce Banner and Tessa Thompson brings the classic character Valkyrie to the screen in style.  Jeff Goldblum plays the almost Messianic leader of a decadent and debaucherous hidden civilization and has some of the best lines in the movie delivering them as only he can.  Cate Blanchett plays the Lady of Death Hela with confidence, but takes the camp a little too far at times for my taste.  Idris Elba also returns as Heimdall but is barely even used in the movie.

These are our main players, and every other character is a punchline or an obnoxious comic foil.  Korg (voiced by the film’s director, Taika Waititi) is an unforgivably-annoying character.  He enters the scene running off dialogues that seem to go on forever.  He shows up and delivers lines as if he was riffing the movie he was in, completely disconnected from the events happening on screen or their impact.  The final scene in the movie, one that should have been powerful and a visual spectacle is suddenly stopped so we could get a stinger from Korg, who painfully mumbles a predictably-unfunny commentary on the very thing we are looking at.  I was in a packed house with people of all ages (including quite a few kids) and nobody, I mean nobody, was laughing at this alien annoyance.  He sucked the emotional presence out of every scene he was in and ground the movie to a needless halt in a way that Chris Tucker wishes he could aspire to.

As an action movie, Thor looks good.  It is not as claustrophobic as the previous Thor movies and has a good sense of scale.  Characters look like they belong in their world and everything has a consistent and admirable visual tone.  There really wasn’t much to hate on in the effects department except for the inclusion of Korg and his buddy, which look like a 2nd year computer animation student did them in a weekend in Unity and sold them to Marvel Studios to be included into the movie.  Other moments are bright, vivid, well-composed and you could actually see what was going on in the action scenes; a marked improvement over other CGI-fest thrill rides.

In all, to me Thor 3 looks like a movie-by-committee.  Previous Thor movies have been mostly-underwhelming, so I’m sure some suit at Disney said something to the effect of, “We need to make this one work.  What was the last movie that made us all of the money in the Universe?  ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’?  Good.  Let’s make that.  How much is Gunn charging these days…  How much?!  Oh, Hell no!  Who can we get for about… 10% of that?  The guy that made a mockumentary about vampires that nobody saw?  Sounds good.  Somebody get me my checkbook.”  This movie reeks of production-by-committee and cynical Hollywood marketing tactics.  Say what you want about some of the lesser Marvel movies since Iron Man 2, but at least there was visible effort and an honest attempt to recreate these worlds.  Thor: Ragnarok spends a majority of its running time on a world that was ripped right out of The Fifth Element only so we could have the creations of a self-indulgent director shoved down our throats.  To make matters worse, this universe and its goings on seem to have no consequence to the rest of the worlds we’ve encountered so far in Marvel’s big movies.  It’s there so we can see how “quirky” and “zany” Waititi is and that is it.  The term self-indulgent comes to mind, but I don’t think that quite nails it.  It’s more of an attempt at a strange self-aggrandizement mixed with an effort to recreate the laziest sorts of gags.  I can say, if you want to see it, it’s harmless enough, but this is not one that I will likely sit through again.

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MoviePass Is Coming! …Eventually!

I wanted to make a quick update on MoviePass.  I did get an update from their support that there is a delay in delivery of new cards due to the large influx of new subscribers.  This is entirely understandable.  The current wait is 2-3 weeks.  Tomorrow will mark two weeks since the order was placed, so there’s a chance it will arrive sometime in the next few days.  By next weekend I should be able to give an honest review of the service.  I hadn’t lost hope and the fact that they did issue a public apology and explanation is good enough for me.

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Trying MoviePass… Maybe?

 

On Sunday, the 27th of August, I subscribed to to the service MoviePass.  I downloaded the app, got everything ready, then all I had to do was wait for the arrival of the debit cards in the mail.  Yes.  This is an online service that still requires you to wait for snail mail.  The idea is, you go to the theater, pick your movie and time, then when you are there, MoviePass loads your card with the exact ticket cost for that ticket.  You get one per day per account at $9.95 per month.

There’s just one problem: The cards have not arrived yet.  After nearly two weeks, I’m still waiting on them to show up.  Now I chalk this up to the Labor Day weekend and the surge of storms raging from the Atlantic possibly slowing things down, as well as a known influx of subscribers after it was announced they would be changing format.  I have heard mostly-positive reviews of the service with the primary complaints being getting everything set up can be a pain.  I can empathize already and I haven’t even been able to use the service.  A second complaint about MoviePass subscriptions is it is only one subscription per person.  So, couples, friends, siblings, ect., who want to frequent theaters together will be out of luck.  At this time, MoviePass has not launched a “couples plan” per se.  Instead, if you want to share the movie experience with someone else, they have to have their own, separate paid subscription.  One post from what is presumed to be a MoviePass support agent does clarify that they “hope to add couples and family plans in the future!” (source).  I can only presume this is a delay caused by the change in format and the future addition of this plan will likely rely on the service’s success in the long run.

Now as for having to wait for the debit card to come in, I would say in an age where online transactions are ubiquitous for just about anything, the delay caused by a debit card having to arrive by mail for a service such as this is baffling and can only be explained by MoviePass not getting proper cooperation from the appropriate corporations in order to give subscribers a way to pay for your tickets online as it would require an intermediary like Fandango, for-instance.  I am hoping to see my card arrive by this weekend so I can get some use out of my plan, but I am not going to hold my breath.  Not to say I do not believe they are coming at all, but given it has taken far longer than the 5-7 business days notice, I cannot be certain they will show up in a reasonable time.

I will write up another review of the service after I’ve had the chance to use it a few times.  I don’t want to use it once, have a good or bad experience, then judge the entire service on that one subjective, anecdotal experience.  I would rather give a review of MoviePass based on a longer-term experience.  Maybe after a few weekends of service I will be ready to really judge it for what it is.

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