Sonic the Hedgehog (2020 Film) Review

We seem to have entered a new age of video game movie, one in which the sub-genre isn’t doomed to suck. Sure, we may still be waiting for a truly great video game movie, but considering the horribly misguided 1993 Super Mario Bros. film – despite its countless faults – remained one of the more enjoyable video game to movie adaptations out there for a good, long while speaks volumes to the low standards of the genre. But now, we’re seeing some real effort going into these video game movies, efforts that are beginning to pay off both for fans of the games and as movies themselves. 2019 saw the release of the charming Detective Pikachu, and now 2020 has seen the release of the surprisingly entertaining theatrical debut of Sonic the Hedgehog.

It’s impossible to talk about this Sonic the Hedgehog feature without bringing up the fact that the film is released in 2020 because it was delayed from its initially planned late-2019 release due to Sonic having to be redesigned and reanimated, after the film’s initial trailer lead to widespread criticism and potential horror with the film’s original depiction of Sega’s iconic blue hedgehog.

You often hear people say how special effects “can’t save a film,” and while that’s mostly true, Sonic the Hedgehog is proof that, sometimes, the special effects can save a movie in their own way. Had this film kept its original design for Sonic, the movie simply wouldn’t have worked. Its namesake mascot would have been an unnerving, cringe-worthy ghoul. The character design would have distracted from any benefits the film may have otherwise had.

While one could make the argument that fans and social media have too much of a say-so in creative works these days, this proved to be an instance where listening to the fans was unquestionably the right call. Because the film opted to make Sonic look more cartoony and closer to his video game self, this Sonic the Hedgehog film dodged a bullet. As such, we can appreciate the (surprising amount of) merits the film does have. Sonic the Hedgehog still has its share of faults, mind you, but it’s a consistently entertaining feature that should also leave fans of the series happy.

In this adaptation of the video game series, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is from another world (which looks suspiciously like the Green Hill Zone from the first game in the series, though it isn’t directly referred to as such). Sonic was born with the ability to run at the speed of sound, and a tribe of echidnas were always after his power (foreshadowing a character likely to appear in a sequel). Sonic had a protector in the form of an owl named Longclaw, but she could only protect Sonic for so long. Sonic, heeding Longclaw’s advice, uses some magic rings to travel to another world in hopes of escaping danger and living a free life (the rings here in the film work like the portals to bonus stages from the games, as opposed to the collectible items).

The world Sonic arrives in is (surprise) Earth. More specifically, he lands in the state of Montana, in a small town called Green Hills (there it is!). There, Sonic lives in secret for the next ten years, getting to know the town inside and out while the townspeople remain none the wiser (save for a conspiracist dubbed “Crazy Carl,” who tries to spread word of a ‘blue devil’ in the town). Sonic’s favorite denizens of Green Hills are Sheriff Thomas Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter), whom Sonic likes to secretly watch movies with during their movie nights (if we weren’t talking about a blue cartoon hedgehog here, that would be pretty creepy).

After years of being isolated from any social contact, Sonic falls into something of a depression. He manages to find ways to cope like playing a baseball game against himself (using his super speed to play the different positions in the game). One day, Sonic takes things a little too far, and his power ends up causing a blackout throughout the Pacific Northwest. The US government can’t figure out the source of the outage, so they enlist a super genius roboticist by the name of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to uncover the anomaly.

Sonic may be fast, but Robotnik proves too intelligent and crafty, and his machines are constantly on Sonic’s tail. Sonic takes refuge in Wachowski’s house, only to be discovered by Green Hills’ sheriff.  Unfortunately for Sonic, he startles Wachowski, who ends up tranquilizing the blue hedgehog, who then drops a ring that opens a portal to San Francisco (it’s a long story), and then accidentally drops the remainder of his rings into said portal before it closes.

With Robotnik’s machines tracking him down, and now absent of his rings to travel to a safer world, Sonic and Wachowski – and later Maddie – team up to try and stay one step ahead of Robotnik’s forces, get to San Francisco, and reclaim Sonic’s rings. All the while, Robotnik plans on capturing Sonic not so much for the government’s research so much as he wishes to use Sonic’s power to fuel his own machines.

The plot is appropriately simple, which was probably the best way to go. After all, it’s when the Sonic games began focusing more on storytelling that the series started to go off the rails. There are admittedly some flimsy elements to the plot, the most prominent of which being the film’s constant attempts to explain why Sonic needs help getting to San Francisco when he can run faster than any vehicle (“he doesn’t know the way,” “Thomas owes him for tranquilizing him” etc.).

The humor itself is admittedly where the older crowd might grow a bit weary. The film can at times be genuinely funny – particularly when Dr. Robotnik is on-screen, with Jim Carrey going “full 90s Jim Carrey” for the role – but other bits of humor in the film might fall flat on the adult crowd. Even some of the antics of Sonic himself might get a little tiresome. I get that he has endless energy, so Sonic’s constant commentary on every situation is perfectly in character, but I could live without Sonic doing the floss dance or a Sonic fart joke.

Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely a film aimed at younger audiences. That’s fine by me. Children deserve to have movies as much as anyone (if not more so), and again, Sonic was always at its best when it embraced its nature as a children’s series (notice the downward spiral the quality of games suffered once Shadow the Hedgehog showed up with his guns and swearing). Still, it would be nice if more of the humor of the film were a little less juvenile.

Otherwise, Sonic the Hedgehog is a consistently good time. Yes, a fully animated Sonic movie would be the ideal direction for the franchise, but considering how so many of these live-action adaptations of animated characters have turned out, it’s close to miraculous that Sonic the Hedgehog is as enjoyable as it is. James Marsden plays a good and charming straight man in contrast to Sonic’s antics, and it can’t be overstated how much of a highlight Jim Carrey’s take on Dr. Robotnik is (some fans may lament that for most of the film he simply looks like Jim Carrey with a mustache, but as the film goes on, he adopts more and more of his classic video game look).

Another aspect of the movie that I liked is that Sonic and Robotnik are the only characters from the games to be featured in the film. Again, the video game series was at its best when it kept things simple, so for the film to show restraint in its character inclusions (and exclusions) is admirable. After all, the very first Sonic game only featured Sonic and Robotnik as its primary cast, so it feels appropriate that they’re the only ones to make the jump to Sonic’s big screen debut. There are hints at Tails and Knuckles appearing in potential sequels (which seems likely now that the film is a success), but that feels like the right way to introduce them. Kind of funny how the Sonic the Hedgehog video games seem hellbent on adding more and more bloat with each new entry, while it’s the video game movie that gets it back on the right track.

Even with only two characters from the games, this Sonic the Hedgehog film still manages to squeeze in many a reference to the long-running series (and Sega in general). Whereas the 1993 Mario movie seemed to be Mario in name only, this very much feels like a love letter to the video game series on which it’s based. Perhaps the only downside in this area is that the only music from the games are a couple of remixes of the Green Hill Zone theme. It’s great to hear such a classic video game tune in a movie, but a few more tracks from the games really would have been icing on the cake (imagine Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik descending in his hovercraft to the boss music from Sonic 1. That would have been delicious).

Maybe one day we’ll get a fully animated Sonic feature even while this series continues (after all, Spider-Man is currently in the MCU, his animated Spider-Verse version, and has spinoff characters like Venom getting their own separate movies. We live in a time when a movie franchise can be different series all at once). But again, as far as bringing an animated world into a live-action movie goes, Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely one of the best ones, and very likely the best video game movie made to date (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).

Between Sonic’s redesign, the profuse references to the video games, and Jim Carrey’s manic brilliance as Dr. Robotnik, Sonic the Hedgehog continues what Detective Pikachu started by crafting an enjoyable film that – unlike so many of history’s video game movies – doesn’t feel the slightest bit ashamed about its source material.

It may not be a great work of cinema, but I’m happy this Sonic the Hedgehog movie exists. Surely that counts for something?

 

7

Top 5 Sonic the Hedgehog Characters

After nearly three decades, Sonic the Hedgehog finally has his first outing on the big screen. To celebrate the occasion, I figured I’d write at least a few thing relating to the speedy blue hedgehog.

Let’s start with an obvious choice: the top 5 Sonic the Hedgehog characters! The Sonic series has introduced many, many characters over the years (too many), and while making a full-on top 10 list would have been nice, this is Sonic the Hedgehog we’re talking about. So let’s settle for five.

Keep in mind that, for my list, I’m only including characters from the games. While Sonic has branched off into other media which introduced characters of their own, I’m a bit of a purest when it comes to making lists like this. Since Sonic the Hedgehog is first and foremost a video game franchise, we’re only counting the video game characters.

Without further ado, let’s see who are the best of the best Sonic the Hedgehog characters!

Continue reading “Top 5 Sonic the Hedgehog Characters”

Weathering With You Review

Back in 2016, director Makoto Shinkai released Your Name, a film that ended up being more successful than anyone could have anticipated. Your Name became something of a pop culture phenomenon, not only was it the highest-grossing Japanese film of 2016, but it climbed the ranks of Japan’s box office to become the country’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time (keep in mind that Japan’s box office record holders don’t fluctuate year by year as they do in the west). Though it wasn’t Shinkai’s first feature, Your Name metaphorically strapped a rocket on the director’s back, suddenly ascending him to become one of Japan’s leading filmmakers.

The pressure was certainly on for whatever Shinkai decided to direct next. And in 2019, Shinkai followed-up his breakout Your Name with Weathering With You, which similarly captured audiences around the world. Like Your Name, Weathering With You became the highest-grossing Japanese film of the year, and climbed Japan’s all-time ranks (it currently sits at 12th place of all time, as of this writing). Though Weathering With You is a charming and sweet film in the same vein as Your Name – and is certainly visually captivating – it too often feels derivative of its predecessor, while never hitting the same emotional highs. Despite its merits, Weathering With You ultimately feels like a pale imitation of Your Name.

The story here centers around Hodaka Morishima, a high school student (this is anime, of course he’s a high school student) who has left his island home in search for a bigger, better life in Tokyo. Hodaka’s trip almost ends in tragedy as a storm thrashes the ferry he’s traveling on, nearly sending him plummeting to the sea below. Thankfully, he’s saved by a fellow passenger, Keisuke Suga, who gives Hodaka his business card in case he ever needs further help.

Hodaka doesn’t fare very well in Tokyo – which seems strangely trapped in a perpetual downpour – as he is unable to find work wherever he goes. The only solace Hodaka finds are in his encounters with a girl named Hina Amano, who works at a local McDonald’s.

“Natsumi is best girl. She should be in this movie more.”

It doesn’t take too long for Hodaka to take Suga up on his offer. Suga hires Hodaka as an assistant in his small publishing company, which also consists of Suga’s niece, Natsumi. Hodoka and Natsumi then begin investigating Tokyo’s unusually rainy weather, which leads to them discovering the legends of “Weather Maidens,” who are said to be able to manipulate the weather.

After Hodaka has another chance encounter with Hina and saves her from some lowlifes, she reveals to him that she is in fact a Weather Maiden, and can clear the skies by praying. Inspired by her abilities, Hodaka suggests they set up a business together, with Hina using her powers for people hoping for clear weather for special events. Together with Hina’s kid brother Nagi, they set up said business, and quickly find success through it. But Hina’s powers may come at a great price, which will also prove to test her and Hodaka’s relationship.

I really like the concept of Weathering With You. The idea of a girl being able to stop the rain by praying is both cute and intriguing. It’s just a shame that – whether by trying to repeat past success or being intimidated by it – Makoto Shinkai ends up turning the idea behind Weathering With You into a kind of Your Name Lite (or Diet Your Name, if you prefer). The supernatural setup may have changed – with the body-swapping of Your Name being replaced with the aforementioned Weather Maiden concept – but otherwise, Weathering With You seems to be repeating the same story beats as its predecessor.

Hodaka and Hina almost feel interchangeable with Your Name’s Taki and Mitsuha (who also have cameos in this film, further reminding you that this is Shinkai’s follow-up to his record-breaking picture). And the story doesn’t take too long before it starts treading the same ground as its predecessor. Young love is at the heart of the story. There’s a tragic element to the supernatural aspect that serves as the emotional crux in the two main characters’ relationship. Natural disasters ensue as a result of these happenings, and evoke the same real-world parallels that Japan faced in the early 2010s which Your Name also addressed (a perfectly reasonable allegory to make, but one that somehow just doesn’t work as well here).

Considering Your Name was a really good movie, Weathering With You’s similarities to it aren’t a horrible thing, but they do prevent it from becoming something greater than an echo of its predecessor. Certain characters are forgotten about for lengthy stretches of time, with Natsumi taking a backseat once Hodaka and Hina start their Weather Maiden business, while Nagi doesn’t seem to be of particular importance at all (his only real character trait being that he’s something of shameless flirt for his young age).

I’d like to reiterate that Weathering With You is a good movie, and a serviceable follow-up to Your Name. The problem is that Your Name was something special, so for Shinkai’s follow-up to merely be ‘serviceable’ is a bit of a letdown. Weathering With You may follow the same formula as Your Namebut somehow, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way.

Aesthetically, however, Weathering With You is every bit as beautiful as you would expect from one of Shinkai’s films. This is a film whose visuals you just wish you could soak in. There’s beauty and attention to detail oozing from every last frame. Weathering With You is a visually arresting work that is simply a joy just to look upon. And like previous Shinkai films, these outstanding visuals are complimented by a terrific musical score which helps elevate the emotion of the film (though admittedly I could have done without some of the vocal tracks, which seemed a tad distracting in certain key scenes).

Weathering With You is a good movie that I very much enjoyed while watching it, with its aesthetic pleasures particularly drawing me in. The issue I have though, is that it didn’t stick with me long afterwards like Your Name did just a few short years ago. It’s a good movie in the shadow of a great one, either too intimidated by that shadow or trying too hard to live up to it to find a voice of its own.

 

6

The Top 10 Characters of 2019

 

*Caution: Some implied spoilers ahead!*

I figured it was about time I did something a little different. So here’s something a little different!

2019 was an interesting year for movies, television and video games, to say the least. It provided some real winners in each of those areas, as well as more than a few duds. But with the good came some truly memorable characters, so I decided to compile a list of the ones I personally found to be the most memorable.

I have decided to simply acknowledge film, TV and video game characters into one list this time around. Because of that, this list also isn’t numbered. Instead, I’ll simply list these characters in alphabetical order. It is also for this reason that I’ll limit each individual work to one character (or two ‘tied’ characters if I feel said characters were of equal importance, and those ties will be listed by which character’s name comes first alphabetically).

Also, it’s important to note that characters are memorable for different reasons. Not every character has to be a deeply-written character. Their status in the public conscious and how well they played the roles they were made for often dictate how iconic a character is destined to become.

Because I am also busy compiling my lists of best films and video games of 2019, and planning my ‘Best of the Decade’ stuff, I will keep this short and sweet.

With that said, let’s move on to the top 10 characters of 2019!

Continue reading “The Top 10 Characters of 2019”

Bombshell Review

Bombshell is the 2019 biographical drama film that chronicles the 2016/2017 sexual harassment cases against Roger Ailes , the CEO of the Fox News Network, and the women who worked for the network who ended up exposing the story, primarily Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. The film stars Charlize Theron as Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Carlson, and while the acting is great and this is a relevant, timely story, the good intentions of Bombshell can sometimes get clouded by Hollywood-style creative liberties.

The most glaring such creative liberty being the film’s third central character, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Though Margot Robbie’s performance is another highlight of the film, I found myself unfamiliar with who Kayla Pospisil was, since the name didn’t ring any bells. Turns out the reason I couldn’t figure out who she was is because she’s a fictional character, composite of a few different women’s stories from real life. While  adding such composite characters to biographical films is pretty common, it does seem kind of cheap to add a fictional character to a real life story that’s still so fresh in the memory. Especially seeing as the film revolves around three central women, it just feels odd that one of these women isn’t based on any real world counterpart.

It’s probably no surprise that the film mostly focuses on Kelly and Carlson, who played prominent roles in bringing down Ailes (portrayed in the film by John Lithgow in a fatsuit). Ailes is fittingly depicted as a pompous and often paranoid propaganda spewer, though his enforced political biases pale in comparison to his crimes against his female employees. Along with creating a toxic atmosphere for the women working for him, Ailes would eventually be outed for sexual harassment by over twenty women, including Kelly and Carlson.

Bombshell also covers the 2016 presidential election, with its opening moments focusing on Megyn Kelly’s moderation of the Republican debate, and her now-infamous feuding with Donald Trump (or, more accurately, Donald Trump’s immature responses to Kelly’s perfectly reasonable questioning). Megyn Kelly then becomes the target of harassment by Trump supporters both online and in her personal life. And although Ailes at first seems supportive of Kelly (if maybe paranoid at times), as soon as Trump becomes a ratings-grab for Fox News, he quickly shifts priorities.

Meanwhile, Carlson is removed as a co-anchor on the Network’s Fox and Friends program, after she began defending herself against sexist remarks both on air and off. Carlson then meets with lawyers to file a sexual harassment suite against Ailes. But she’ll need evidence and testimony from other women to bring down Ailes. When the case is made public and no other women speak up, Carlson starts to lose face. But Megyn Kelly, having been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, begins uncovering other women who have been victims of Ailes’s in the past, which – in the film – includes the newly-hired Pospisil.

As stated, this is a recent and very relevant story worth telling in a film, and the cast is excellent, particularly of its three leads (most especially Theron) as well as John Lithgow. The film’s focus on some fictional characters and elements does seem to undermine some of its relevance, however.

Another troublesome aspect of Bombshell is that it sometimes seems to be using the serious issue of sexual harassment as an excuse to take shots at some of Fox News’s on-air personalities who aren’t guilty of any crimes other than having differing politics than Hollywood, which seems beyond petty. For example, the film has one moment that needlessly takes a stab at news anchor Neil Cavuto, which seems particularly strange given the man’s now-famous spiels against Donald Trump. But he’s a republican, so he has to get some comeuppance! I don’t know, it just seems so petty to throw those kinds of jabs into the film when it’s supposed to be focusing on the much bigger issue of sexual harassment, which certainly knows no partisan politics (funny how we aren’t seeing a similar movie being made about Harvey Weinstein. I wonder why that could be?).

could potentially write that off as Hollywood being Hollywood. However, there is one scene in the film that ultimately makes me unable to recommend Bombshell. Yes, even though I think the film is well-made in most respects, and makes good use of a stellar cast, there is a single scene in Bombshell which I feel undermines the integrity of the film.

The scene in question happens later in the film, and sees Pospisil – who has since been a victim of Ailes’s sexual harassment – question Megyn Kelly about why the latter didn’t come out about her past victimizations sooner, as it may have prevented the same thing from happening to others. Think about this, for a moment: we have a fictional character essentially victim-shaming the character based on a real person who actually suffered through sexual harassment. This scene may have had a chance to be redeemed, if Pospisil later came to acknowledge that Megyn Kelly is in no way responsible for Ailes’s continued harassment, but no such scene occurs. So again, we have a fictional character (written by a man, no less) putting part of the blame on a real life victim. Despite Bombshell’s merits as a film, this one scene ultimately plays against its very purpose.

The real life Megyn Kelly, when discussing the film, rightfully found the scene in question to be a case of victim-shaming. Although Kelly acknowledged that she could have done more sooner after seeing the film, that in no way makes her responsible for what happened to other victims in any way, shape or form. It’s nothing short of despicable to accuse a victim of any responsibility for the crimes committed against them.

Again, I can’t help but feel this is a case of petty politics getting in the way of something much bigger and more serious. It’s like the film is saying “yeah, these women are victims and we should feel sympathetic, but they’re still conservatives so we can’t feel too sympathetic.” Bigger picture here, people!

I do have to reiterate that Bombshell is a well-made film, and I appreciated it for the most part. But because the film needlessly wags its finger at one of the real life victims of the story it’s covering, I feel I can’t really recommend it. Though the story and issues Bombshell is dealing with are timely, this is a rare case of a single scene undermining that story and those issues.

 

4

Knives Out Review

2019 was an interesting year for films. Though it provided a few great movies, and fittingly capped off the movie decade in regards to franchise closures for Avengers and Star Wars, it was also a year that really magnified the disconnect between “serious” Hollywood and the moviegoing public. Not only were films that pandered directly to critics lavished with predictable praise – resulting in the baffling acclaim towards films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a virtually plotless bore – while popular movies were widely ridiculed for being just that (as is evidenced by Martin Scorsese’s blatantly ignorant statements against Marvel films being met with acclaim by the filmmaking community, who applauded contempt for the average moviegoer like a bunch of trained seals).

Often at the heart of this disconnect was Rian Johnson, who in 2017 divided critics and audiences to a whole new degree with his take on Star Wars, The Last Jedi. Critics lauded the film for its supposed “subversion of expectations” and how it painted a normally ethereal series with a more hard-edged, cynical brush. Meanwhile, fans tended to feel The Last Jedi was so desperate to “subvert expectations” that it both abandoned logical narrative choices and betrayed character personalities.

Granted, The Last Jedi also exposed the more cancerous side of the Star Wars fandom, but critics often used that unsavory corner to blanket the entirety of The Last Jedi’s critics. If you didn’t like The Last Jedi, you weren’t simply a disappointed fan who felt the film undid all the goodwill J.J. Abrams did for the series with The Force Awakens, but you were automatically lumped in with the more toxic fans of the internet as an easy means to be discredited, thus allowing “serious Hollywood” to stroke its ego all the more.

This made the warm critical reception of Rian Johnson’s follow-up film, Knives Out, a foregone conclusion. But like all too many of 2019’s critical darlings, Knives Out is a film that feels undeserving of its ludicrous praise.

I admit I went into Knives Out with high hopes. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a whodunnit murder-mystery in theaters, and with a pretty stellar cast, Knives Out looked like it could have been the shot in the arm Hollywood needed to resurrect a long-dormant genre.

Unfortunately, Rian Johnson’s obsessive desire to “subvert expectations” once again shows up at the expense of a fluid narrative. After a strong opening act, the film takes a sharp detour in both genre and structure that robs the film of much of its potential enjoyment. It may pick things back up a bit by the end, but by that point, it’s too little too late for Knives Out.

The film starts off well enough, with wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) being found dead on the night of his 85th birthday by one of his maids, in what appears to be a suicide. Despite this, an anonymous party hires the aide of detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the scene, suspecting foul play.

It seems just about everyone who attended Harlan’s birthday celebration is a suspect, with Harlan making enemies with just about his entire family.

Harlan fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his position as the CEO of Harlan’s publishing company, and threatened to expose the affair of his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) to Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s eldest daughter and Richard’s wife. Harlan also removed his lazy grandson Hugh “Ransom” (Chris Evans) from his will, and cut off the allowance of his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), after discovering she had been stealing money from him.

Benoit Blanc interrogates each member of the family, including grandchildren Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), as well as the housekeeping, most notably Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who was Harlan’s caretaker and nurse, and probably the person Harlan was closest to in his later years.

Marta has a unique quirk that makes her a valuable asset in Blanc’s investigation: she gets sick when she lies. That’s not a metaphorical attribute, but she literally gets sick to her stomach and vomits from the stress and guilt of lying. Because of this, Blanc has Marta aide in his investigation, but Marta might know more than she’s letting on about what happened on the night of Harlan’s death.

Honestly, this aspect of the film is very well done. We get a good setup for the premise, most of the characters get a decent amount of time to showcase their personalities in their initial interviews with Blanc, and Marta’s presence – and unique ailment – add a fun twist to the proceedings. The first act suggests that maybe Knives Out is indeed the revitalization of the whodunnit it marketed itself as.

Then we abruptly get a revelation about Harlan’s death that kind of spoils the fun. Without spoiling too much, this particular revelation is only part of the bigger story, with the film letting the audience know there are additional details lying in wait. But once this revelation takes place, the whole ‘whodunnit’ premise that the film brags up so strongly largely disappears, and Knives Out instead becomes more about suspense than mystery. Sure, there are a few details about Harlan’s death that need solving, but because the film gives us a fakeout reveal pretty early on, all the other potential suspects become considerably less important, which makes an otherwise great cast feel sorely underutilized.

The film also has a bad tendency of breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule of visual mediums, by means of literally telling the audience who these characters are, instead of letting the characters’ reveal their personalities themselves. For example, Harlan’s grandson Jacob is often referred to as an “alt-right troll” and a “fascist” by his family, but all the character does is stare at his phone the entire film. I get that the implication is that he’s being a troll online, but because the character doesn’t do much of anything else but stare at his phone, he may as well be checking his email or looking at models on Instagram. You can’t just have the character stare at the phone the entire movie and have other characters say that he’s a stupid little punk. Make him a stupid little punk!

Sadly, after the film’s strong opening, much of Knives Out feels similarly dumbed down. Though the early parts of the film make a genuine attempt to make the audience think any member of Harlan’s family could have committed the crime, as the film goes on it’s so desperate to throw us off the scent of one particular character, that it becomes apparent that no one else could have done it except THAT character. That’s a rookie mistake in any murder mystery.

Again, the film does pick back up during its finale and the ultimate reveal, but by that point, the damage has been done. When Knives Out works well, it works very well – with sharp writing, great performances (particularly by Craig and Plummer), and a fun mystery…when it’s a mystery – the problem is that Rian Johnson’s need to “subvert expectations” through twists and turns ultimately ends up getting in the way of the films stronger aspects. Knives Out is a whodunnit in a time when such a film even existing is a rarity, yet it feels compelled to try and change up a genre that is the exact opposite of oversaturated in today’s movie landscape. It’s like digging up buried treasure, then emptying the treasure chest and putting different treasure inside. It’s like, okay, you already found buried treasure, what was the point of changing it?

To be fair, certain twists work fine (again, having a character who literally can’t lie without being found out is a fun little gimmick), but when one of those twists is blatantly revealing the majority of the murder details early on in a murder mystery, it makes the films other elements suffer. I can’t help but think Knives Out would have been a much better film if it were willing to just be what it is, and allowing the characters’ personalities to make it standout, instead of trying to reinvent a genre that already feels like a breath of fresh air in this day and age just by showing up. Knives Out is so busy trying to add twists and turns to the whodunnit genre that much of its middle act loses that whodunnit identity.

Had it stayed the course and focused on Blanc’s interrogations with the Thrombeys and their associates for the entirety of the film, Knives Out could have been something special: a whodunnit with several colorful personalities making the mystery more and more intriguing. Instead, by desperately trying to “subvert expectations,” Knives Out willingly abandons  its best elements just as it gets going. And by the time it picks the pieces back up, most of its characters haven’t developed past what we saw of them in their introductions, a great cast feels underutilized (why wasn’t Jamie Lee Curtis in more of this movie?), and the potential kind of feels wasted.

Knives Out has moments of brilliance, and word has it a Benoit Blanc sequel is already in the works. I can imagine that character being in a great movie, but unfortunately, Knives Out isn’t it. In this day and age, when everyone seems to be believe twists and turns automatically equate to originality and creativity, Knives Out is a reminder that, sometimes, you can better unleash your own creativity and voice if you aren’t trying so hard to reinvent the wheel.

You really don’t have to be Benoit Blanc to figure that out.

 

5

Frozen II Review

When Frozen was released in 2013, Disney had no idea what they had. What seemed to be planned as simply the “two princesses” Disney movie – with most of the marketing focusing on the comic relief – ended up being a worldwide phenomenon the likes of which Disney Animation hadn’t seen before. Disney found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for the merchandise surrounding the film, its songs instantly became iconic, and fans – adults and children alike – would dress up as the characters. It was a pop culture landmark whose impact was more akin to the likes of Star Wars than a Disney animated film.

It was an earned reputation as well. Frozen was a terrific movie that gained its popularity organically. Audiences fell in love with it, and through word of mouth, it continued to grow. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, its characters quickly became some of the most beloved in cinema history, and it connected with audiences around the world (being particularly popular in Japan).The world couldn’t get enough of it.

Making a sequel seemed to be an inevitability on Disney’s part, but thankfully, the studio didn’t simply churn one out as quickly as possible. While other animation studios these days green light multiple sequels immediately after a decent opening weekend, Disney didn’t pull the trigger on a sequel to its biggest homegrown hit for well over a year, and even then, it didn’t officially begin production until a few years thereafter.

After over six years with only two short films to tide audiences over, Frozen II has finally become a reality. Thankfully, it’s a sequel that’s well worth the wait. Frozen II brings back the iconic characters and provides musical numbers as beautifully infectious as those of the original, while simultaneously setting itself apart from its predecessor in some incredibly bold ways.

Frozen II is set three years after the original, though its opening moments take us back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood, where their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) tells the princesses how he became the king of Arendelle. When he was a young boy, Agnarr travelled with his father to an enchanted forest found far north of Arendelle. The forest was home to the spirits of nature: earth, fire, wind and water. This forest also served as the home of the Northuldra people, who lived in harmony with the magic of the forest. Under orders of the king, Arendelle constructed a mighty dam in the forest as a gift of peace for the Northuldra people. But the celebration was short-lived. During the festivities, something went wrong, and a battle broke out between the people of Arendelle and the Northuldra. During the fighting, the former king of Arendelle was sent plummeting off a cliff, while Agnarr was knocked unconscious.

The spirits, angered by the fighting, sealed off the forest with an impenetrable fog, and went into a deep slumber, thus trapping everyone already inside the forest, and preventing anyone else from entering. Luckily for Agnarr, a “mysterious voice” rescued him from the forest before the fog fell. He then returned to Arendelle as its new king. Agnarr ends his tale by warning Anna and Elsa that the spirits of the forest could reawaken, and should that happen, to expect the unexpected.

Fast-forward to the present (three years after the first film, and six years after Anna and Elsa’s parents died at sea). Elsa (Idea Menzel) is now the beloved queen of Arendelle, while her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is its equally-beloved princess. One day, out of the blue, Elsa begins hearing a mysterious voice calling out to her. The same mysterious voice that rescued her father all those years ago. The voice seems to have a connection to Elsa’s magical ice powers, as she is the only soul in the kingdom who can hear it.

As the voice persists to haunt Elsa, it eventually draws out an inner power within her, and Elsa ends up reawakening the spirits of the enchanted forest. This results in a bit of chaos in Arendelle, with all traces of fire and water vanishing from the kingdom, while the movement of the earth and a powerful wind force all of Arendelle’s residents out of the kingdom. The citizens of Arendelle (or “Arendellians” as we learn) take refuge with the magical trolls, whom inform Elsa that she must travel to the enchanted forest, calm the spirits of nature and uncover the secrets of the past in order to restore peace to her kingdom.

Anna, ever the adventurer and always willing to stand by her sister, accompanies Elsa on her journey, as does Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and lovable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who now has a permafrost body to prevent him from melting. Lead by Kristoff’s reindeer-drawn sled (good ol’ Sven has to be involved as well), the group make their way to the enchanted forest, where Elsa’s magic allows them to penetrate the fog to enter the woods. But the group quickly realize they can’t get back out unless Elsa accomplishes her mission and permanently frees the forest.

While the characters are as endlessly likable as ever, and the film remains a musical, Frozen II is a very different movie from its predecessor. Not only does it meld into action-adventure territory, but it also takes on a darker, more mature tone (while younger children can still very much enjoy it, Frozen II seems to acknowledge that the kids who watched the original are now six years older, and the narrative has fittingly grown up alongside them). While the first film may have been a fairy tale, Frozen II doubles down on fantasy logic in both its narrative and world-building.

At first glance, these elements may make Frozen II seem alienating to fans of the original. But by being so radically different from its predecessor (while still, of course, retaining the characters we all grew to love), Frozen II is not only following the path of all the best sequels, but is actually the perfect kind of follow-up the original Frozen could have asked for.

Frozen has become so popular and so engrained in pop culture over the years, that we might actually forget why it gained that status in the first place. Frozen was all about bucking trends. It celebrated the things we love about Disney movies, while dismantling the cliches and outdated elements. It turned Disney archetypes into fleshed-out characters, who dictated the direction of the story, instead of being directed by it.

Disney could have gone the easy route with this sequel, and simply repeated the same beats as the original. It would have been easy money, to be sure. But by going in a very different direction narratively and tonally, it’s not only a brave, intelligent sequel, but it’s also – in a roundabout way – keeping in spirit with its predecessor by being different than it.

Sequels so often get derided for being “more of the same,” but Frozen II should be viewed as one of those rare sequels that justifies the artistic merits of franchises. Just because we’re revisiting a familiar world and characters doesn’t mean we can’t be given new stories. And Frozen II very much provides us with a different story.

Admittedly, this sequel is a bit more plot-focused than the original’s character-driven narrative, with the opening moments delivering the necessary exposition, but this isn’t an inherently negative thing. The only issue is that after we get the backstory with Agnarr retelling the events of the enchanted forest to Anna and Elsa, we immediately enter the brunt of the plot with Elsa beginning to hear ‘the voice’ as soon as we’re reintroduced to her. It’s not a big deal, and the film definitely delivers more than a few great character moments, but the story may have benefitted further if we got a few such moments before jumping into the plot. But that may be my love of the original film and its structure talking.

The characters are as likable as ever. Anna and Elsa remain Disney’s strongest lead characters, and Frozen II still wisely puts them and their sisterhood at the heart of the story, albeit in a very different way than the first film. While the original had Anna in the protagonist’s role trying to connect with Elsa – who more or less filled the role of antagonist – here both sisters are on the adventure together. This allows the film to showcase their interactions more, which brings more out of both characters.

Olaf still serves as the film’s primary comic foil, but again, in a different way than what the first film did with the character. In the original, Olaf was determined to experience Summer, being gleefully naive to how the hot Summer weather would affect a snowman such as himself. Here, Olaf’s character arc is all about growing up. Being the de facto ‘kid’ character of the lot, Olaf is – in his own words – dealing with “the increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” While Olaf’s newfound inquisitiveness is mostly played for laughs, it does echo the film’s overall themes of maturity.

Kristoff does admittedly get something of the short-end of the stick in the storyline, but I suppose not everyone can get the same time in the spotlight. Kristoff’s story arc this time around is his attempt to work up the courage to propose to Anna, with every such attempt falling apart in one way or another. It’s a fun sub-plot, and it does get to showcase Kristoff’s character (including giving him a proper musical number all to himself, after Jonathan Groff got shortchanged in that area in the first film), but he is left out of most of the film’s third act.

Another great thing about Frozen II is how it handles its returning characters. It’s often easy for sequels to turn their characters into exaggerations or parodies of themselves, or to seemingly hit a reset button and undo the developments their characters went through in their first go-around. But Frozen II instead enriches the key players of its franchise. The film acknowledges how the the characters have grown from the events of the first film, while also staying true to their personalities.

Elsa, for example, may no longer be ruled by the fear of her powers, and is now willing to embrace the world and people around her. But Elsa still has a solemn and melancholic aspect to her, and still showcases a vulnerability and social awkwardness that is unique in movies, Disney or otherwise. Anna, meanwhile, is more worldly after everything she went through in the first film, but she’s still a bit naive when it comes to personal interactions (which humorously plays into Kristoff’s fumbling proposal attempts). This character growth goes back to what makes Frozen II such a special sequel: it doesn’t try to simply replicate the original, but instead builds upon it.

There are a few new characters introduced once the story enters the enchanted forest, the most prominent of which being Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), a Lieutenant who served Arendelle under Anna and Elsa’s grandfather who has been trapped in the forest ever since that fateful day. Another commendable aspect of Frozen II is how it so easily avoids the pitfall of so many animated sequels of overemphasizing new characters at the expense of the returning ones. The new characters who are present in Frozen II help enrich the world and story of the film, but they all play the roles they need to without overstaying their welcome, as opposed to needlessly playing roles that are already covered by the established characters (no talking sporks or swashbuckling cats in this sequel).

Frozen II is a visual wonder. While the first Frozen showcased snowy landscapes, Frozen II’s setting of the Northuldra forest is drenched in an Autumn pallete. There are a lot more Earthy-colored environments this time around, while Elsa’s ice powers, as well as the purple flames that emanate from the Fire Spirit, keep the hues of the original film intact. Between its gorgeous environments and many magical happenings, Frozen II is an astonishingly beautiful film. And much like the story itself, the art direction and settings distinguish this sequel from its predecessor. There’s not a moment in Frozen II that doesn’t look like a work of art.

The voice cast is every bit as enjoyable as they were in the first film, and remains among the best vocal cast of any animated feature. Josh Gad provides charm and warmth to Olaf without making him too cutesy. Jonathan Groff gives Kristoff heart and humor. And most notably, Kristen Bell and Idena Menzel are perfect in the roles of Anna and Elsa. Bell has a unique combination of heroism and innocents to her performance that brings Anna to life, while Idena Menzel’s unrivaled ability to capture both vulnerability and raw power in her voice make her the one and only person who could’ve voiced a character as unique as Elsa.

Also new to the cast is Evan Rachel Wood as Anna and Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna. Though her role is primarily in the film’s opening flashback, she proves to be another stellar addition to the Frozen cast.

That brings us to Frozen II’s songwork. Frozen II is the first musical sequel in the entire Disney canon (those straight-to-video cash-grabs of the 90s and early-naughts were created by third-rate subsidiaries of Disney). As such, Frozen II had a unique uphill battle. Making a sequel to a beloved film is a difficult enough endeavor in itself, but how do you follow-up something like Let It Go?

I’m happy to say that, somehow, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have done the impossible and created a selection of songs that match those of the original film. The songs of Frozen II vary wildly, from its opening lullaby sung by Queen Iduna (“All is Found”) to an 80s power ballad (Kristoff’s aforementioned musical number, “Lost in the Woods”). Every major character gets a new song, all of them catchy and infectious in the best way. We even get an ensemble (“Some Things Never Change”). And perhaps knowing that recreating Let It Go simply wouldn’t be  possible, Frozen II avoids having to deal with said comparison by giving Elsa two musical numbers, thus making them more likely to be compared to each other, as opposed to their indelible predecessor. While all of the songs of Frozen II are great, it’s no surprise that Idena Menzel’s vocals make both of Elsa’s songs (“Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself“) the biggest highlights.

As a fan of the original film, I was excited for Frozen II, but admittedly a little cautious. How exactly could Disney (or anyone) make a worthy follow-up to a film that was such a pleasant surprise to begin with? It turns out any such cautions were misplaced. Frozen II retains the spirit of the beloved original, and much like said original differentiated itself from Disney traditions, Frozen II differentiates itself from its predecessor. The beloved characters and terrific songwork return, but the story, its structure and its tone are unique to itself.

Frozen II is an ideal sequel, then. One that creates a wonderful continuation to the stories of the characters audiences have grown to love, while telling a story of its own. Frozen II is the best sequel of recent years, and is such a strong and unique film of its own that I find this to be a rare instance of me wanting to see where Anna, Elsa and company can go next with a third chapter in their story.

Frozen II could have been an easy sequel that road the coattails of the original. Instead, Frozen II follows its own advice, venturing into the unknown to create the best animated sequel since Toy Story 2. Frozen has become so endearing that we can’t – ironically enough – let it go.