Frozen and Me

I just got back from seeing Frozen II and I have to say, as a fan of the original, that was a very rewarding sequel.

I plan on writing my review for Frozen II soon, but first I’d like to give some early impressions of the film, due to reasons that I’ll explain right now.

When Frozen was released in 2013, it was quite unlike anything I’d seen. Internet cynics would probably lambast me for saying that, seeing as it’s a Disney musical and thus ‘can’t be art’ yadda yadda yadda. But as someone who has been a lifelong fan of Disney, I admit there were still things about the animation studio’s output that I always felt were outdated. Frozen, as it turned out, was the Disney movie I always wanted, but never knew I’d actually get.

As much as I appreciated Disney films, I never would have put them on the same level as Studio Ghibli or Pixar’s animated features. Ghibli and Pixar would craft stories that were driven by the characters. Disney, meanwhile, used characters who were defined by a small handful of archetypes, and seemed to exist for the sole purpose of pushing the plot forward. Compared to the characters of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, well, there was no comparison.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a plot/concept-based movie. But knowing what animated storytelling was capable of due to the likes of Ghibli and Pixar, it felt like Disney was unable/unwilling to break away from their formula. Granted, Disney movies were mostly good, but kind of interchangeable really. I could name several Studio Ghibli or Pixar movies that would rank among my favorites, because they all felt distinct. But I felt I could pick one Disney movie to represent the entire lot because, well, they very much had their formula down pat (in case you’re interested, I would have listed Beauty and the Beast in a pre-Frozen world).

But Frozen changed all that. In one fell swoop, it addressed and rectified the issues I felt were holding Disney back. Sure, the archetypes were there, but there ended up being so much more to these characters than what was on the surface. What seemed to be marketed as “just another Disney Princess movie but with two princesses,” ended up being the most thoughtful and meaningful film in the Disney canon. Said princesses were fully fleshed-out characters, the comic foil (Olaf) existed for more than just comic relief (though he was also great at just that). Even the Disney Prince, the most bland and uninteresting of Disney’s archetypes, was given an overhaul, and the film featured one of the very few plot twists that genuinely surprised me.

Frozen subverted expectations before subverting expectations was cool. And honestly, it did so way, way better than the works that have attempted it since. Perhaps The Last Jedi would have been less polarized if Rian Johnson had studied how Frozen subverted expectations, as opposed to seemingly writing off what J.J. Abrams and company started with its predecessor (I would like to point out that I actually liked The Last Jedi, but no doubt Frozen did to Disney traditions what Rian Johnson could only hope to do with Star Wars).

On top of defying tradition and giving new depth to Disney storytelling, Frozen was also a hell of a lot of fun, and the catchiness of the songs needs no explanation. Again, the cynical and snarky would love to ridicule me for saying something like this, but Frozen was a perfect movie (and certainly THE perfect Disney movie). Sure, naming my favorite Disney movie still has an easy answer, but now it’s because there’s one that’s just so damn good, as opposed to one I simply feel best utilized the studio’s formula (I still love you, Beauty and the Beast).

Now I have to get a bit more personal. On top of being the Disney movie I always wanted/never expected, Frozen also had a profound impact on me personally. Sorry to sound like a sad sack, but I suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression and Social Phobias. I have my entire life, and in that particular point in time I had been feeling especially low. But Frozen, a Disney movie about a magical snow princess and her sister, believe it or not, helped me better understand and subsequently deal with my demons. And I have been improving myself ever since.

Through Elsa, the snow queen who gives Frozen its name, Disney somehow created a character who serves as a universal and sympathetic allegory to such issues (and many others). Many people have also viewed Elsa as an allegory for homosexuality, and more power to them. But that goes back to what made Frozen so special: What other Disney movie featured characters and elements that were allegorical and left so much room for interpretation?

Again we go back to the internet smartasses, who would no doubt laugh at me for claiming Frozen – a kids movie (and perhaps even more so, a popular movie) – of all things, is what has helped me better understand myself. Surely they would point out all the arthouse and indie films that deal with mental issues and such in a literal manner. Well, I’ve seen a good number of such films, but even with the good ones, I’ve felt a bit of a disconnect with them. Along with a tendency to feel more than a little bit like award-bait, many such films tend to display mental issues and the like as a hopeless tragedy, or something that is simply to be pitied or vilified. But through Elsa, Frozen told audiences how these issues – even though they may be hard, and sad, and tragic – are a fact of life for many. These things shouldn’t be feared, but we should learn to accept them and be willing to face our issues to better ourselves. Elsa may have been the antagonist, but not because she was the typical Disney villain who was out to cause evil because reasons, but because people were ignorant and feared her, which caused her to run away from her problems and create the core conflict of the movie. It’s through the selfless love of her sister Anna, the film’s protagonist, that Elsa in turn learns to love herself.

Yeah, it’s a bit deeper than the usual Disney fare.

For one reason or another, Elsa was a far more relatable character to me than anyone found in “more intellectual” films. I may now be a 30-year old male, and (as far as I know) I lack magical ice powers, but Elsa is indeed the movie character I relate to over all others. I am not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

Frozen, of course, eventually became a worldwide phenomenon. Along with Pokemon and Harry Potter, it’s probably among the biggest pop-culture phenomenons to have occurred in my lifetime. While it was great to see something so good be rewarded with recognition, the fact that we live in the often-abhorrent internet age naturally meant that as soon as Frozen became popular, it became ‘cool’ to ridicule it (how dare children like things!). But despite generic internet contrarianism (a YouTuber complaining about stuff? Oh, how original), that first year or so of Frozen-Mania, when the film was absolutely ubiquitous, was probably the first of maybe two instances in the 2010s where the world seemed to find something that made it genuinely happy and brought people together in a way that’s incredibly rare in this cold, disconnected internet age (the second instance would be the release of Pokemon Go).

Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film in the world for nearly six years (it was somehow displaced by that uncanny valley Lion King remake. Though I suppose Frozen can still claim to be the highest-grossing good animated film). And yes, a sequel became an inevitability. As with any sequel, it’s a risky move. That’s especially true of something that had no pre-conceived expectations (Frozen may be very loosely inspired by Hans Christen Anderson’s The Snow Queen, but really only in the fact that it features a snow queen). Again, Frozen originally just looked liked the “Two Princesses” Disney movie. No one would have guessed it would become what it did.

I should point out now that, ahead of its release, I myself rolled my eyes at the advertisements to the film, as I – in my certain knowledge – knew it was just going to be another example of the Disney formula. Never before or since has a movie made me look like a fool so beautifully.

Here we are, six years later, and Frozen II is a reality. I’m sad to see a number of ‘professional’ critics were cynical even ahead of its release (and some after). Yes, the success of the original surely swayed Disney to make the sequel, but if this were a mere cash-grab, it would have happened years ago, and simply repeat the same beats as the original. This is a genuine sequel, and it’s sad to see some still write it off basically because it’s a sequel and thus “can’t be art.”

Earlier this year, Pixar released Toy Story 4. While that particular movie was decently good on its own merits, it paled in comparison to its three preceding films and, at its worst, retroactively rendered its immediate predecessor pointless. Yet Frozen II is the one cynics are targeting as being “all about the money.” It seems a bit hypocritical, considering that Toy Story 4 is the fourth entry in a series that already wrapped up with its third entry, and is a series that’s literally about toys (I love Toy Story, and Toy Story 4 certainly wasn’t bad, but c’mon, if any party in this scenario is guilty of milking a franchise, well…..).  I am aware that Toy Story 4 currently has higher meta-ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk, but I don’t see that as a reflection of the actual quality between the movies, so much as yet another reason why we should stop giving Rotten Tomatoes and company any credibility and form opinions ourselves. It also seems kind of strange that franchises primarily targeted at young girls are usually the ones that come under fire for “being greedy.” But that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.

Having seen Frozen II, I genuinely felt it was a worthy follow-up to the original. I hope to review it ASAP, but part of me wonders if I should review it. After all I’ve said of the personal impact Frozen had on me, no doubt many would think I’m an unreliable source due to my love of its predecessor (which seems a bit strange, when you think about it. Who exactly are sequels made for if not fans of the original?). But I would say, if there are means to justify biases, x-thing helped me understand and deal with mental illness seems like a pretty decent one. It certainly has a stronger case than it’s a sequel ergo it’s bad, I like to think. And in my defense, I do try my best to still be fair and honest when I review things. Sure, I have preferences (I am a human being, after all, not a robot), but that doesn’t mean I can’t also view things from a critical lens. I could have easily awarded every Hayao Miyazaki directed film a 10/10 based on personal feelings and history, but of the eight of them I’ve reviewed so far, their scores range from 7s to 10s (Miyazaki still unquestionably makes good movies, so nothing on the lower half on the scale from him, admittedly).

Yes, I honestly felt that Toy Story 4, while decent, was a retrograde sequel that undermined Toy Story 3, while Frozen II felt like a meaningful continuation that added to the growth of the characters and world of the original.

The big question has to be: Is Frozen II as good as the original? Well, that’s kind of an unfair question at this point in time. Again, I have been praising Frozen as Disney’s finest achievement for six years now, and it has played a surprisingly big influence in my life for that same amount of time. It’s kind of difficult to compare. I will reiterate that Frozen II is an exceptional sequel that – like any good sequel – feels different from its predecessor while simultaneously adding to it. It was worth the wait, and it feels like something that came from the heart of its creators, as opposed to a token sequel merely capitalizing on the success of the original.

I hope to review Frozen II in the near future, and maybe after better analyzing it and contemplating it, I can give a proper comparison between it and its predecessor. But at the moment it feels like an unfair task on myself. Frozen II is an incredible sequel, but with the impact the original had on me, can I of all people make that comparison? It would be like if I saw a really great anime movie, and someone were to ask me if it compares to Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. It’s like, well no. Of course not. It’s an unfair battle.

I loved Frozen II, and yes, I even cried. When I do review it, expect it to be pretty glowing. It genuinely saddens me that a number of critics are writing it off because of that ‘II‘ in the title, because the film is more than that. But whether or not I think it matches the original is, for once, not a matter of the film’s quality itself, but a testament to what the first film accomplished, and what it did for me.

Donkey Kong Country Turns 25!

Today, November 21st 2019, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System! It’s also the twenty-fourth anniversary of its exemplary sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. It also means it’s been exactly nine years since Donkey Kong Country Returns was released on the Wii.

Whoa whoa! DKCR is already nine years old? Where the hell did that time go?!

Yessir, the Donkey Kong Country series is now twenty-five years old. If I may give my two cents, I personally think DKC is probably the best all-around 2D platforming series. DKC2 and DKC: Tropical Freeze, in particular, should rank as some of the greatest platformers ever made.

Originally a trilogy created by Rare on the Super Nintendo, Donkey Kong Country was later revived by Retro Studios on the Wii and Wii U/Switch with two additional entries. Whether under the creative minds of Rare or Retro, Donkey Kong Country has provided some of the best 2D platforming experiences.

Between the phenomenal gameplay, masterful level design, and perfect, perfect music, the Donkey Kong Country series should rank alongside The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario as one of Nintendo’s finest.

Happy birthday, DKC! Can Tropical Freeze get a sequel now?

200 Movie Reviews!

I have finally amassed 200 movie reviews!

That’s right, Kevin! My review of Joker marked the big 2-0-0!

Okay, so technically speaking I am now at 203 movie reviews, and Maleficent was actually the 200th. But, if we go back in time in the Dojo’s DeLorean, three of my movie reviews were for short films that were about five minutes in length (Frozen Fever, Sanjay’s Super Team and Riley’s First Date?). I listed them as “mini-reviews” and, although all three reviews were positive, they weren’t given a number grade. I just didn’t know how to rate something that’s five minutes using the same scale as I use for feature films (or even just half-hour shorts). So if we view the ungraded “mini-reviews” as separate, then Joker is my 200th movie review. Huzzah!

Admittedly, it did take me quite a while to reach this milestone. This Christmas will mark Wizard Dojo’s fifth anniversary, and I’ve only just now reached 200 movie reviews. Compare that to my game reviews, when I reached 200 in about April of 2017. A bit quicker there, and I really don’t know how, considering video games tend to be exceedingly longer than movies. Well, I suppose if I stick to my plan of only purchasing a handful of new games next year, I can catch up with the movies.

You can check out all 200(plus) of my movie reviews on my aptly-titled Movie Reviews page. Here’s hoping the next 200 won’t take me so long. Pick up the pace with my movie reviews. Y’know, on top of learning video game design, making videos and that other stuff I want to do… Maybe I’m stretching myself too thin.

Anyway, thanks for sticking around for 200(plus) movie reviews! Here’s too many, many more! Onto the next milestone!

Joker Review

Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker, is easily the most iconic comic book villain of all time. He may not possess super powers, but the Joker’s more real-world sense of evil of being a straight-up murdering psychopath has made him, unquestionably, the most infamous of super villains. The Joker is probably the sole comic book villain whose mainstream recognition matches (if not surpasses) that of iconic comic book heroes Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. He’s even had multiple acclaimed transitions to the silver screen. Mark Hamill famously voiced Joker in animation and video games, while Jack Nicholson’s take on the character in Tim Burton’s poorly-aged 1989 Batman film still receives praise. It was the late Heath Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime in 2008’s The Dark Knight that remains the most lauded depiction of the character.

The Joker’s indelible mark on pop culture, as well as his undefined backstory and identity, made a movie entirely dedicated to him an inevitability. And that came to pass in 2019, with director Todd Phillip’s bluntly titled Joker, which cast Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role. Despite the big (clown)shoes to fill in the role, Phoenix delivers an unforgettable and haunting performance that carries the film, even if it does suffer a few hiccups in other areas.

As stated, the Joker has never had a definitive backstory. While the origins of Batman are set firmly in stone – a young Bruce Wayne being traumatized by the murder of his parents, who then seeks to avenge them by bringing justice to a corrupt Gotham City – the Joker is a blank slate. Joker has had various origin stories and former identities in various comic books, movies and other media, but they vary depending on the creators of each individual work. The Joker, on the whole, is an enigma, with his super villain identity being his only consistency.

While I’m on the side of the fence that prefers the Joker as an unexplained evil (such as in The Dark Knight), it’s always interesting to see how different artists paint the origins for such a dark figure in their own way. And Todd Phillips’s film does give the Joker one of his better origin stories.

Phoenix’s Joker begins life as Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck party clown and aspiring standup comedian suffering from several mental illnesses. Along with his inability to empathize, Fleck also has a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times. Fleck lives with his mentally ill mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), whose manipulative ways do Arthur no favors, despite his best efforts to help her out. Arthur idolizes talk show host/comedian, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and befriends his neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). These relationships often become obsessions for Arthur, which only further magnify his instability.

The film is an old-fashioned character study. Using such a film to focus on a comic book character is a novel idea, and there’s perhaps no better suited subject from the medium to focus such a concept on than the Joker. The film is clearly using Martin Scorsese’s character studies for inspiration and reference, which is a good place to draw from, though it does make Robert De Niro’s casting a bit on-the-nose.

We witness firsthand Arthur Fleck’s downfall from being a troubled man disenfranchised by society into a cold-blooded, heartless maniac. Throughout it all, Joaquin Phoenix’s perversely mesmerizing portrayal of the character makes it all scarily believable and real. This is a very different Joker than what we’ve seen in the past, one that’s a bit more grounded, more troubled. Pardon me if I sound hyperbolic, but Phoenix’s performance might just be an all-time great. His presence makes every scene unnerving and hypnotic. In a weird way, the performance draws you in and scares you away at the same time.

If the film suffers from this origin story at all, it may be that its tone doesn’t always run with that of Phoenix’s portrayal. The film far too frequently tries to paint Arthur Fleck in a sympathetic light. And while that works for a while, as Fleck slowly transforms more and more into the unflinchingly evil Joker, the film still seems to think of him as something of a victim.

Fleck’s life is filled with hardship after hardship, and it seems everyone who crosses his path is as remorseless as the Joker is destined to be. He’s beaten, mugged, emotionally abused, deceived, mocked, marginalized and screwed over multiple times over at every given turn. Again, that works for a while, and gives us some understanding as to how a broken man like Fleck could be pushed over the deep end. But even after he goes over the deep end, it seems as though the film is still trying to shed a sympathetic light on a resoundingly unsympathetic character.

That might be a controversial statement on my part, since it seems we live in a time in which everything is always conveniently society’s fault, and individuals are somehow not responsible for their crimes. But while Joker is all too willing to show us the ugly side of society and how the Joker is the result of its corruption, it almost fails to acknowledge that he ends up being a worse threat than anyone or anything else he came across to get there. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter who made the monster, the monster is the monster.

Perhaps the story’s biggest drawback is that it’s so focused on justifying Arthur’s descent into madness and his eventual transformation into the Joker that it comes at the expense of everything around him, including the foundations of the Batman mythology itself.

During the events of Joker, Bruce Wayne is still a child (Dante Pereira-Olson), his father Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is a mayoral candidate. Thomas Wayne – like Murray Franklin – plays an indirect influence in Arthur’s life. Penny Fleck was once an employee at Wayne Enterprises way back when, and retains an unhealthy fixation on the company’s owner. Issues with the story emerge with Thomas Wayne’s portrayal in the film. He’s depicted as a pompous, condescending and unsympathetic jerk, and only that.

While I can kind of understand what the film was going for by showcasing Thomas Wayne in a less-idealized light than most depictions of the character, the problem is it undermines the very essence of Batman, who is – in a roundabout way – vital to the very essence of the Joker. By reducing Thomas Wayne to being just another negative force in Gotham City, it makes Bruce Wayne’s inevitable transformation into Batman seem like nothing more than a quest for revenge. While it’s true that Batman does exist because of Bruce Wayne’s longing to avenge his parents’ murder, he is ultimately something more than that because of Thomas Wayne.

If Batman were solely driven by revenge, he’d probably not have an issue taking the law into his own hands and killing his adversaries like the Joker. But Thomas and Martha Wayne imparted ideals of justice into Bruce, ideals that, ultimately, are what Batman is really fighting for. It’s something more than Bruce Wayne’s personal quest for vengeance.

I’ve heard some people defend Joker’s depiction of Thomas Wayne as simply being from the perspective of the Joker himself, thus justifying the negative portrayal. While that may be true to an extent, the film never gives the audience a glimpse that there’s anything more to Thomas Wayne than “corrupt billionaire/politician.” Because of that, it unintentionally foreshadows Bruce Wayne’s eventual creation of Batman as being about nothing more than personal revenge.

In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker existed as the antithesis of Batman’s belief in justice. Chaotic, destructive, and nihilistic, the Joker was everything Batman fought against rolled into one insane package. Their clashing worldviews was the ultimate conflict of the film. But here in Joker, even though Batman himself has yet to exist, the way in which it rewrites Thomas Wayne and, by extension, Bruce Wayne’s backstory means that Batman’s eventual creation has no deeper meaning. He’s a figure who is to exist within the Joker’s world, as opposed to his philosophical opposite.

Some might say I’m reading it all the wrong way, seeing as this is Joker’s movie. But I have to reiterate that there is a difference between telling a story from Joker’s perspective and altering the moral foundations of Gotham City’s mythology just to fit the narrative. It just comes across as the film trying too hard to be edgy and different with its negative depiction of a character who is usually at the moral heart of the story, that the film ends up suffering fundamentally from it. Again, if Batman lacks meaning, why does it matter that Arthur Fleck is the Joker? He could be any madman at this point. I get that the filmmakers wanted Joker to draw real-world parallels, but at some point it would have been nice if the film didn’t seem like it was embarrassed by the fact that it’s a comic book movie and allowed the idealistic foundations of the Batman mythos to still have a place in this iteration of Gotham City.

Joker seems a bit confused as to what it wants to be saying then. It acknowledges its titular villain as just that, a villain, while simultaneously trying to justify his actions through sympathy. Aside from its identity crises, however, Joker is undoubtedly a well-made film in other areas.

I can’t stress enough how great Joaquin Phoenix is in the title role. Watching Arthur Fleck’s downfall play out is as entrancing as it is unnerving. Because of the Joker’s acclaimed past portrayals, comparisons are bound to be made to past on-screen iterations of the character. While I don’t want to crown a definitive winner due to the different takes on the character, I will say that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a worthy successor to Heath Ledger’s indelible version. It also begs the question: when was the last time the same character created so many different iconic performances?

The film also has a great look to it. The Gotham City of Joker is a much more realistic take on the setting than any other screen representation so far. Set in a gritty 1980s backdrop, Joker’s Gotham City creates a number of memorable locations and shots. The “Joker steps” featured in one particular scene have become a landmark due to the film. The scene in question, which sees the demented clown dancing down the steps to the music in his head, has already become an iconic scene in its own right. And one of the film’s final sequences, which sees Fleck finally meet Murray Franklin face-to-face, is truly bone chilling.

There is a great movie here in Joker. It provides a fresh take on the super hero/villain genre, turning its origin story into a grounded, realistic character study. Helmed by Joaquin Phoenix’s unforgettable performance, Joker has to be the most haunting comic book film ever made, and creatively the most ambitious since The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, the great movie that is here is drowning in the film’s indecisiveness as to what it wants to say. Is it a commentary on the ugly side of society, or just a blatant example of it? If the Joker is a maniacal mass-murderer, why does the film relish in the opportunity to paint him as a kind of political martyr for the working class?

The Dark Knight saw the clash between Batman’s idealism and Joker’s nihilism. But Joker absorbs us into the Clown Prince of Crime’s dark mindset alone, and still expects us to feel empathy for him despite his inhuman crimes. The Dark Knight’s Joker was similarly evil, but at most we saw him as a pathetic creature. But Joker’s take on its titular character feels like it wants us to root for him, even after there’s nothing left to root for.

Joker is undeniably a mesmerizing character study. But when the character we’re studying is a monster, don’t expect me to see him as anything but.

 

7

I Has Pokemon Sword!

I now has (yes, has) Pokemon Sword version. Does Nintendo still use the terminology “version” to distinguish Pokemon games anymore? At any rate, this is cool not only because it means a new Pokemon adventure, but also because I have no more video games on pre-order for the rest of 2019! This, of course, means I will have ample time to catch up on my back catalogue, as well as my game reviews.

Sure, there are a couple of other 2019 games that look interesting, but I’m so inundated with games I’m just gonna have to stave it off for a while. Of course, Christmas is coming up, and if any of my more generous/bestest friends happen to be reading this, I’m perfectly fine with getting some games as gifts. *Hint hint wink wink*

Anyways, along with playing Pokemon Sword (what, you thought I was going to get Shield version? Is anyone getting Shield version?), I will try to catch up on other games from 2019 like Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice and Astral Chain, along with some older titles. As for the near future, I’m hoping to review Luigi’s Mansion 3, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga as soon as possible. That’s on top of some movie reviews as well, like Joker and Dojo Rabbit (I have no excuse why I haven’t reviewed them yet. Sorry). Also with It: Chapter 2 being released on digital platforms soon, I’ll (finally) get around to reviewing that duology. And of course, Frozen II is a must review for me, and hopefully I’ll have my review for the holiday special Olaf’s Frozen Adventure done before that.

I’ve reviewed most of the movies I’ve seen in theaters this year, with the exceptions of the above mentioned that I just haven’t got to yet (plus Judy. But I may wait to review that one until I get all these things done. No rush on that one). I’ve actually grown quite pleased with ow many movies I’ve managed to review that were released this year. Unfortunately it seems in regards to games, I was still buying more while I was still playing others. As a result, I haven’t finished a number of them and haven’t been able to review as many as I’d like. Here’s hoping these next few months give me the time to make up for lost time.

I’m really going to have to crank these out quickly in the coming days if I hope to stick to my plan of reviewing every Star Wars movie before The Rise of Skywalker releases in late December (sans Solo: A Star Wars Story, which I’ve already reviewed).

What am I going on about this again for? Didn’t I already ramble about this recently?

In short, with no more games on pre-order until Animal Crossing: New Horizons in March, it looks like I finally have a good window of time to catch up on things. And also yay Pokemon and all that!

Terminator: Dark Fate Review

*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, Terminator: Dark Fate is an interesting exception where I feel the twists and turns it makes in relation to its franchise have to be discussed in critiquing it. So again, spoilers abound!*

Some franchises are so deeply embedded in pop culture and the public conscience that they can go on forever. Other franchises have their day in the sun, but need to know when to hang up their coat.

Unfortunately, the Terminator franchise falls into the latter category. That’s sad to say, because the 1984 original is a classic in both the action and sci-fi categories, while its 1991 follow-up, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, is widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest sequels, and arguably the best pure action movie ever made. Had it stopped there, the Terminator series would have easily ranked as one of the all-time great movie franchises.

But it didn’t.

In 2003, we had Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. It was an okay sequel that was more stupid fun than it was a worthy follow-up (though its ending seemed to undermine the whole point of the beloved second installment). Then came Terminator Salvation in 2009, which took audiences into the dystopian future mentioned in the previous films. Finally, the oddly-titled Terminator Genisys arrived in 2015 as an attempted reboot. None of these films compared to the first two Terminator features, and after the reboot tanked, Terminator: Dark Fate sought to get the series back on track.

Ignoring everything post-T2, Dark Fate serves as a direct sequel to Judgement Day, and sees series’ mastermind James Cameron return in a producer’s role. Although Dark Fate writes off the preceding three films as being “alternate timelines” and seeks to pick up as a ‘true’ successor to Terminator 2, it seems doomed to become nothing more than an ‘alternate timeline’ itself, as the changes it makes to the franchise hurt the legacy of the first two films perhaps more so than any of the other sequels did.

Before we discuss why Dark Fate does such irreparable damage to a beloved series’ legacy, let’s talk about the centerpiece for those first two films: John Connor.

In the original Terminator film, a T-800 model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The Terminator comes from a future in which an AI called Skynet has caused mass destruction around the globe, and uses its Terminators to eradicate humanity. The T-800 was sent through time to kill Sarah Connor because her eventual son, John Connor, is destined to lead a human resistance against Skynet, which eventually leads to humanity winning their war against the machines (sending the Terminator through time was a last-ditch effort by Skynet before it was deactivated).

Fast forward to Terminator 2, John Connor is ten-years old, and two Terminators are sent to this particular time period. One is the T-1000, a liquid metal killing machine that can change its shape, sent back in time to kill John Connor as a child. The other Terminator is another T-800, reprogrammed by the future John Connor to protect his younger self from the more advanced machine. Together with the T-800, Sarah Connor successfully protects her son from the T-1000, and they ensure a new, brighter future for humanity.

So how does Terminator: Dark Fate attempt to get the franchise “back on track” by ignoring the less-loved sequels and continuing the story of Terminator 2?

By killing John Connor in the first three or so minutes.

Yessir, this installment, which so desperately wants us to forget about the previous three sequels/offshoots and to be considered the “proper” follow-up to Terminators 1 and 2 begins by… rendering Terminators 1 and 2 pointless…

Honestly, this might be the biggest middle finger of a ‘twist’ I’ve ever seen in a movie franchise. I’ve heard more than enough complaints at The Last Jedi and its supposed disregard for its legacy (I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi, though I can understand a number of the complaints). But you could take everything fans disliked about Rian Johnson’s Star Wars film, as well as all three of the maligned prequel trilogy entries, put them all together, and it still wouldn’t be as disrespectful to the legacy of its franchise and its audience as this one move is here for the Terminator series.

Not only does John Connor die within minutes of the film, but it’s in such an unceremonious fashion. Although seeing actors de-aged (rather convincingly) with CG to re-introduce the Sarah and John Connor of the 1990s to audiences feels like a treat for a brief second, it’s a moment that’s instantaneously dashed once another T-800 simply walks up to John Connor while he and his mother are on vacation and shoots him. It even undermines the villains from the first two films. You mean to tell me that after all the crap Sarah Connor fought through to survive the first T-800, and the extravagant action sequences she and John endured at the hands of the T-1000, that another T-800 just casually walks by and gets the job done? It’s outright insulting.

Unfortunately, it’s far too grave of a mistake for the film to recover from. Even with some impressive action scenes, Terminator: Dark Fate – quite unintentionally – lives up to its title because of this one move. It sabotages the very core of the franchise to such a degree, that it may be the only thing on your mind for the rest of the movie.

All John Connor’s death ends up amounting to is a means to introduce a new character in his same role. Although the film at least acknowledges that the events of Terminator 2 did alter the future in their own way, John’s death alters it even further. Instead of Skynet, a different AI called “Legion” will eventually attempt human extinction with the aid of Terminators (why the evil AI gets an edge-lord style new name but the Terminators remain the same as the previous timeline, from their name to their appearance, is anyone’s guess). With this marginally altered timeline, a different individual is destined to become humanity’s savior in the war against the machines, Daniella “Dani” Raymos (Natalia Reyes).

Fast-forward to the present day (twenty-two years after John Connor’s unceremonious end), and Dani is a young woman working at a factory. Because she’s filling the exact same role as John Connor, two figures from the future are sent back in time to the present day, one to protect her, and the other to kill her. In the form of protector we have Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human woman who’s been augmented with cybernetic parts. And in the form of assassin, we have the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who – like all the post-T2 Terminator baddies – is essentially another T-1000 (though credit where it’s due, he comes with the fun twist of having a liquid metal skin, but a more traditionally mechanical skeleton, thus allowing him to separate himself into two figures).

Eventually, Dani and Grace are joined by an older Sarah Connor, who doesn’t need cybernetic implants to be badass. Later still, the team is joined by – and I kid you not – the same T-800 that killed John Connor who, after completing his directive and not having a purpose, slowly began to gain a semblance of a conscience, saved a woman and her son from an abusive husband/father, married said woman, and raised said son as his own. I admit it’s a fun setup for a character, but doesn’t it just sound more like a Terminator parody you’d see on a comedy sketch than from the supposed “true” follow-up to Terminator 2?

It turns out that after learning to integrate into humanity, this T-800, humorously referred to as ‘Carl’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger, obviously) began to understand what he took away from Sarah Connor, and is attempting to do what it can to set things right. Hence why it’s secretly helped Sarah Connor track down other leftover Terminators Skynet had sent to the past, and why it helps our current heroes in the fight against the Rev-9.

This whole setup just blows my mind on so many levels. One, if our new heroine was just going to follow the same character path as John Connor, why not make this another reboot instead of a sequel to Terminator 2? Two, if they just had to have this be a sequel to Terminator 2, why did they have to kill off John Connor, when they could have simply said the events of Terminator 2 altered the timeline so now Dani Raymos has taken his place in the future instead? Third, is the future in the Terminator franchise destined to be ruled by an evil AI before humans retake the planet thanks to the efforts of one destined individual? So if one ‘chosen one’ gets bumped off, the next in line just takes their place? Pretty much undermines the whole importance of Sarah and John Connor to begin with.

This just seems like a movie that had so many other, better options they could have taken the story. Instead, they decided to tell the same story as the past Terminator movies but with different characters, while keeping Schwarzenegger and Hamilton onboard so they could call it a sequel.

One of the best recipes for a winning sequel is “same characters, different story.” But Terminator: Dark Fate chooses the exact opposite approach, which has only ever proven to be a pitfall for sequels. And killing the central figure of the entire series within the first few minutes? Yeah, that’s got to be near the top of the list of things not to do in a sequel.

That’s not to say that everything in Terminator: Dark Fate is a total bust. Some of the action scenes can be quite exhilarating, the special effects are good, and even after all these years, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are still a joy to watch in these roles. If you’re someone only slightly familiar with the Terminator franchise, and just want to see some fun action scenes, you might have a good time. But if you’re invested in the franchise even just a little bit, it’s hard to recommend Terminator: Dark Fate. While it’s great when long-running franchises try their hand at something new, it amounts to nothing when the “new” is the same material as before, just with slightly different characters.

It’s the movie equivalent of when an actor leaves a sitcom, and the show replaces that character with another one who is basically identical in personality and characteristics. But here, we didn’t have an actor leaving the role, just a movie that completely disregards the character who was at the heart of the franchise within its opening minutes.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day remains one of the best sequels in movie history. Terminator: Dark Fate? Nope.

 

4

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Review

2019 has certainly been a busy year for Disney, and that is notably true of the Mouse House’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics. Dumbo and Aladdin both received live-action makeovers, while the Lion King got its own Not-Actually-Live-Action-But-Disney-Likes-To-Pretend-It-Is remake. Capping off the quartet of theatrically released Disney remakes of 2019 is a sequel to one of Disney’s earlier efforts in adapting one of their animated features of the past to a contemporary live-action film, 2014’s Maleficent.

You may be wondering if Maleficent needed a sequel. And the answer is no, it didn’t. Nor do I believe there was any particular demand for one. But that’s okay, not every movie has to be “necessary” to be enjoyable, and even though Hollywood still likes to believe there’s a stigma to sequels (because how dare these movies make them money?), there have been plenty of great movie sequels over the years. While Maleficent: Mistress of Evil may not be among those great sequels, it is a serviceable one that is on par with its predecessor. So if you liked the first Maleficent, then Mistress of Evil isn’t going to take anything away from that, even if it doesn’t necessarily improve on anything. Unnecessary it may be, at the very least, Mistress of Evil’s standing as a sequel to the 2014 film at least means it’s a live-action adaptation of a Disney animated film that isn’t a direct remake. So that’s something.

Appropriately set five years after the first film, Mistress of Evil sees its titular Dark Fairy, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), having become something of the adoptive mother of Aurora (Elle Fanning). Although Maleficent cursed Aurora into an eternal slumber, she ended up breaking her own curse with “true love’s kiss” (the mother/daughter spin on the material actually being pretty novel). Despite her good deeds, all people remember of Maleficent’s story is that she cursed Aurora, and she is still feared among many kingdoms.

Maleficent has crowned Aurora queen of the Moors (the magical forest realm), and soon enough, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) from the human kingdom of Ulstead, proposes to Aurora, and the two are set to be wed. Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent’s raven-turned-manservant, informs the dark fairy of Aurora’s betrothal, which doesn’t sit too well with her. Maleficent still doesn’t believe in love, though she wants Aurora to be happy more than anything, and so agrees to meet the king and queen of Ulstead.

That’s right, the sequel to the movie centered on one of Disney’s most iconic villains is about meeting the in-laws. Strange as it may sound, it’s a fun premise for a fairy tale, even if Shrek 2 beat it to the punch by fifteen years (though considering there’s not really been another such fairy tale since, and this film centers around a villain, it’s still covering pretty fertile ground).

As you might expect, things don’t go so well. Though Phillip’s father, King John (Robert Lindsey) is alright, his mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has a not-too-subtle prejudice against magic folk. Ingrith brings out the worst in Maleficent, who then goes into full villain mode. When it appears Maleficent has placed a sleeping curse upon King John, she is exiled from the kingdom, and Aurora’s faith in her mother figure is shaken. The king’s curse – and the framing of Maleficent – are Queen Ingrith’s doing, as she plots to start a war with the Moors. Suffice to say, meeting the in-laws escalated quickly.

The plot is a bit silly, but it’s well-intentioned. On the plus sides, Aurora is finally given the opportunity to develop as a character (it only took the sequel to the remake to get there). The performances – particularly of Jolie, Pfeiffer and Fanning – are memorable. And as stated, it’s kind of nice to see these familiar characters featured in a different story than that of Sleeping Beauty. On the downside, the plot takes a largely unnecessary detour when Maleficent goes into exile and encounters the remaining Dark Fairies of the world, and as much as this series has tried to subvert Disney traditions, both Maleficent and now Mistress of Evil feature the Mouse House’s oft criticized “evil parent” archetype more prominently than perhaps any of the studio’s animated features ever did (I speak not of Maleficent, but of King Stephen in the first film, and Ingrith in this sequel).

It’s that aforementioned sub-plot with the other Dark Fairies that is the film’s biggest undoing. Not only does it give us even more characters in an already crowded movie, but it also takes too much time to explain things that really aren’t necessary. For example, we find out that Dark Fairies are descendants of the Phoenix, and that Maleficent is the most powerful Dark Fairy  because she’s a direct descendant of said flaming bird monster. Like, why is that important? Why do we need an explanation for why Maleficent is the most powerful fairy? Why can’t  her magic just be the strongest and that’s all there is to it? And why a phoenix? Given the Maleficent character’s long-standing association with dragons, why not make it a dragon since the first Maleficent movie already denied us of that?

Am I getting sidetracked? Not any more than the movie itself.

The other big problem is, like the first movie, the visual effects still leave a lot to be desired. It’s not bad CG per se, but the creatures just look artificial. They don’t meld into the picture with the live actors, they stand out as visual effects in a garish way. This time around, Aurora’s fairy godmothers; Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville) no longer take on their human forms, so we’re stuck with seeing their uncanny valley versions throughout the entire movie. And a new character – a hedgehog-like creature called Pinto – joins in the proceedings, along with a mushroom creature. They’re obviously supposed to be filling the role of cutesy animal sidekicks, but the cuteness never shines through the glaringly artificial CG. It’s a similar complaint I have to the Harry Potter series, where every magic creature is unpleasant to look at. Though I suppose the creatures here aren’t all outright grotesque, so I guess the Moors are a step up from Hogwarts.

With all these complaints, however, I admit I still had some fun with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Again, the performances are good and it’s nice to see the characters working in some form of new material. And even when the Dark Fairy sub-plot enters the realms of gobbledygook, it’s at least the kind of needless nonsense I can have fun with (I actually got a kick out of the whole Phoenix stuff, pointless though it may be).

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is not a great movie, or a particularly good sequel. But y’know, if you liked the first film, Mistress of Evil does give you more of what you want. And I don’t think it’s any worse than its predecessor, either. It’s a perfectly serviceable sequel for its fans, if maybe not anything more. But hey, that certainly beats whatever Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was.

 

5