The Good and Bad of The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is now one of the highest-grossing movies all time. That’s not too surprising, since it seems like all a movie needs to do to make such a claim these days is have a lot of super heroes and visual effects. But, Age of Ultron is an enjoyable movie, which is more than you can say about most billion-dollar movies. Age of Ultron is more entertaining than more cynical nerds would want to admit (“I found one tiny flaw so now everything about it sucks and it betrayed the comics!”), but it also has its share of problems. Here are the things I loved about Age of Ultron, followed by the things I, well, didn’t.

*Be warned: spoilers ahead!*

Continue reading “The Good and Bad of The Avengers: Age of Ultron”

In Defense of Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland has quickly turned into a bomb for the Walt Disney Studios. Failing to win over the box office and garnering a mixed reception from critics, Tomorrowland is already drawing comparisons to another Disney bomb, John Carter (another live-action sci-fi flick directed by a former/future Pixar director). This is an unfair comparison since, unlike John Carter, Tomorrowland is actually entertaining.

Yes, Tomorrowland is a flawed film. It often can’t decide whether it wants to be a whimsical, bewildering sci-fi adventure (in which it mostly succeeds) or a fast-paced action flick (in which it’s less consistent). Some of the visual effects aren’t nearly as convincing as others, leaving one to wonder how Disney of all studios could skimp in that department.

But Tomorrowland is, in its own way, a beautiful movie. It has a sense of imagination that is uncommon in (would-be) blockbusters, and it has a lovely, earnest message that goes against the increasing cynicism of today’s movies (and culture in general).

The setup of the film is that the titular Tomorrowland (which is only referred to by name once in the movie) is a community within another dimension founded by the likes of Nikola Tessla and Jules Verne, where scientists, artists and other such “dreamers” are transported in order to make their creations without the burdens of Earth getting in the way. Of course, these dreamers do this to help make a better future for a troubled Earth.

This being a movie, something goes wrong in this seemingly perfect community of creative minds, and the promising world of Tomorrowland abandons its original goal of helping Earth, and Tomorrowland itself is left behind to all but a select few.

Although marketing would have you believe George Clooney’s character, Frank Walker, is the star of the film, he’s only a supporting player. The movie’s real focus is on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), an optimistic tech-genius, and Athena, an android bearing the likeness of a young girl, who is still following her mission to bring more great minds to Tomorrowland.

"Why weren't we featured more in the marketing again?"
“Why weren’t we featured more in the marketing again?”

Both of the female leads are a highlight of the film, as neither of them fall under the tropes that most other movies would blindly follow when it comes to female characters (even Age of Ultron largely reduced Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow into little more than a romantic interest for Bruce Banner). It’s baffling that Disney hasn’t played up the “girl power” heroines of this movie more, given the wild success Disney has seen in that area in recent years. Casey and Athena serve as the real heart of the film. Sure, George Clooney brings the star power, but it’s time we stop pretending that George Clooney ever plays any character other than George Clooney in every movie he’s in.

"I'm only the villain because people suck!"
“I’m only the villain because people suck!”

What I most appreciated about Tomorrowland was its sheer optimism. It is cynical only towards cynicism itself. The film has a message about how the popularization of pessimism and the embracing of doom and gloom are disgusting trends of modern society. We constantly reinforce the bad and feed the negative, despite that we can make our futures better with a little work and effort. Even the film’s antagonist (portrayed memorably by Hugh Laurie) is fed up with the defeatists of today. As he so eloquently puts it:  “In every moment there’s a possibility for a better future, but you won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what’s necessary to make it a reality.”

In this day and age, when even the Avengers ends on the sour note of two robots discussing how doomed mankind is, it is infinitely refreshing to see a movie that is not only hopeful and optimistic, but that outright dismisses cynicism itself. While just about every other big budget movie aims for dark and gritty, Tomorrowland can’t think of anything more annoying than just that.

I have also heard a number of people write off the movie as “weird.” But its weirdness is one of Tomorrowland’s best qualities. I grow tired of sci-fi and fantasy movies feeling the unnecessary need to explain their every last detail to their audience. Movies these days are so afraid that they might alienate some of their audience with imagination that they either over explain or under develop their fantastic elements. There’s no awe to sci-fi and fantasy when they spoonfeed audiences their every detail.

Tomorrowland is a weird movie. But weird is wonderful. I love that it only went into detail with what needed to be addressed, while a good deal of other things were gleefully left unexplained. There’s even a fun line of dialogue that more or less dismisses audiences wanting more exposition. There’s something admirable about a movie so defiant in wanting to be itself.

“Looking up even when the box office is looking down.”

As mentioned previously, Tomorrowland does have its share of problems. It is the weakest of Brad Bird’s five directed films due to the aforementioned inconsistency in its tone, as well as some story mishaps (the movie makes the unwise choice of ending on an explosion-heavy action sequence, which undermines its feel-good intentions). Some may also find the insistent Disney references eye-rolling, but what were you expecting in a film called Tomorrowland?

Ultimately though, Tomorrowland is far more enjoyable than it’s getting credit for. Its box office failure has been discouraging enough for Disney to cancel its long-gestating Tron 3, and it looks like the studio will go the John Carter route with Tomorrowland and slowly but surely pretend like it never existed. Again, this is a shame, since Tomorrowland – despite its obvious flaws -boasts more honesty and originality than a lot of the movies that are making a billion dollars these days.

Tomorrowland is dismissed for being weird, but that’s what makes it unique among more cliched genre movies. It’s been written off by critics and audiences for its optimism, but that may just prove the movie’s commentary on cynicism to be more than a little accurate.

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies

With Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron upon us – bringing an end to “Phase Two” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the process – I figured now is a good time to compile a top ten list of the currently released movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s my ranking of the ten movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s phases one and two from least to greatest. Here they are.

*Caution: Some spoilers ahead!* Continue reading “Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies”

The Good and Bad of Disney’s Live Action Cinderella

Cinderella

Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella is a bit of a mixed bag. Sure, it could be a whole lot worse than it is, but it also could be a whole lot better. It’s inoffensive, but it doesn’t exactly justify Disney’s recent obsession with turning their animated back catalogue into live-action films. So here’s a brief lists of the things I think worked for the new Cinderella, and the things that didn’t work.

 

The Good

It Means Well

While a straight up adaptation of Cinderella may seem a tad superfluous, seeing as Disney’s animated version is already synonymous with the House of Mouse, you have to appreciate that the live-action Cinderella isn’t trying to make the story into something “cool” or “edgy” to try to appeal to today’s audiences. It’s not trying to be hip or sexy. It’s just Cinderella. In this day and age, that’s kind of relieving.

 

It’s Better than Maleficent

Disney’s last attempt at turning one of their animated films into a live-action feature, Maleficent, was a bit of a mess. There wasn’t a single plot twist that didn’t feel both predictable and forced. It never knew whether it wanted to be a charming Disney movie or something (*cue Napoleon Dynamite-style groan*) darker and edgier. And its core relationship between Maleficent and Aurora never quite worked.

Cinderella, although lacking in surprises, at least knows what it’s going for. It may be the same story of Cinderella we all know, but I’ll take that over the clunkiness (and garish visuals) of Maleficent.

 

A Dash of Ethnic Diversity

Cinderella doesn’t aim for a whole lot of modernization, but it does have at least one respectably modern aspect about it. The movie acknowledges some diversity in the people of Cinderella’s kingdom without ever forcibly pointing it out, making it feel like a kind of idealized fairy tale world. However, there are still some areas that could have definitely benefitted from some modernization. More on that in a moment…

 

Cate Blanchett

CinderellaThank God for Cate Blanchett, who steals every last scene she’s in as Lady Tremaine (AKA the Wicked Stepmother). She commands every last scene she’s in. It doesn’t matter that her character is ridiculously antagonistic, Cate Blanchett makes Lady Tremaine interesting based on performance alone. Even when the film is at its shakiest, Cate Blanchett helps liven things up.

 

Frozen Fever!

Frozen FeverAww yeah! Frozen! Woo! Seriously, we all know the short film Frozen Fever is the primary reason Cinderella has done so well at the box office. People can’t get enough of their Frozen fix (self most especially included), and even seven minutes back in Arendelle is worth the ticket price.

 

 

The Bad

Cinderella Herself

CinderellaFirst thing’s first, I like Lily James as Cinderella. She’s charming. But although she fits the part, the part in question is still stuck in a very backwards role. I mentioned that the film makes some modernizations in ethnic diversity, yet no such improvements are even attempted on Cinderella herself.

Cinderella is still the same helpless mope she always was, if not more so. As a child, her parents teach her to “be kind and courageous.” Good advice, except once Cinderella ends up in the household of Lady Tremaine and her new, wicked stepsisters, she interprets her parents’ words as “let cruel and vindictive people walk all over you and never stand up for yourself.” There’s a great deal of difference between being kindhearted and being a pushover.

It doesn’t help that Cinderella is never given any real defining qualities other than her longing for a better life. It never seems to don on her that maybe she can be the one to make her life better. When the day is finally saved not by the heroine, but by a group of CG mice, I think it’s a sign that Cinderella needs to stop being such a sad sack. She could learn a great deal from those two sisters from Arendelle.

 

Character Backstories That Don’t Go Anywhere

Again, you have to applaud the effort. This Cinderella does give a couple of attempts at fleshing out some of the main characters by giving them more detailed backstories. The problem is that these backstories are all kind of forced into the movie through monologues, and the story never benefits from them. Lady Tremaine gives one such monologue, and although the delivery is great, it ends up going nowhere. Sure, it tries to make Tremaine a more sympathetic character (though it’s pretty hard to sympathize with someone so unreasonably cruel), but it ultimately doesn’t change her character, or her relationship with Cinderella. Again, at least the movie tried to add some interest to the characters, but I suppose these things are easier said (through monologues) than done.

 

 The Underutilized Fairy Godmother

CinderellaI actually enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s take on the Fairy Godmother. The character seemed like she knew her role as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, but she got sidetracked on her way into the story, and kind of goes through the motions to make up for lost time. It’s a fun take on the character…for about two minutes, then she never shows up again. Granted, I wouldn’t want her to just magically get Cinderella out of all her jams (I’m looking your way, Blue Fairy from Pinocchio), but she’s a fun character who disappears all too quickly.

 

The Sidekicks Just Don’t Work

I don’t know if it’s the CG, or if it’s merely a result of the story’s transition to live-action, but the sidekicks never won me over. The mice may be cute, but something about them just comes off as sidetracking. Without the cartoonish personalities found in the animated version, they just kind of take up time. The same goes for the goose-turned-coachman and the lizards-turned-footmen (the former being charmless and the latter unnerving). The sidekicks are one aspect of the animated version that simply don’t translate in this live-action adaptation.

 

 

So Cinderella has its share of problems, but at least it has some good points as well. I’m still not onboard the whole Disney animation-turned live-action train, but at the very least Cinderella proves that, even with its missteps, this subcategory of Disney flicks isn’t entirely hopeless.

Why Frozen 2 Must Deliver the Goods

*Caution: Some spoilers ahead!*

Frozen

Frozen 2 has officially been announced to be in the early planning stages by Walt Disney Animation Studios. While animated sequels come in by the droves these days, this is one animated sequel whose announcement comes as a huge deal for a number of reasons.

The most obvious of such reasons being that Frozen is the most successful animated film of all time, yet it’s taken well over a year for this sequel to be announced (compare that to other animated films of today, where multiple sequels are announced after the opening weekend). Another reason this is interesting is that it’s a sequel to a Disney animated film. Sure, the 90s Disney films were tainted with straight-to-video sequels, but Disney was well aware of their “less-than favorable” quality. Not only has Disney long-since discontinued the entire concept of straight-to-video sequels, but those that they made are not counted as official movies in the Disney canon. The only ‘true’ Disney sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh, the latter two of which aren’t necessarily continuations of their predecessors, either. Pixar and Dreamworks seem to have a heyday with sequels these days, but a true Disney sequel is a rarity.

So while it may seem obvious that a film as successful as Frozen would get a sequel, the circumstances of time and its lineage are something to note.

But one thing is certain: Frozen 2 must deliver.

On a personal level, Frozen is my favorite Disney movie of all time. I had gotten to a point where I still enjoyed Disney films, but thought that the studio was merely capable of making entertaining movies, not artistic ones. Then Frozen came along and was not only the most fun Disney movie I’d seen (and I’ve seen every Disney animated film), but also one that, finally, had deeper meanings, thematics and character development to it (a trait that carried over, to a lesser degree, to Big Hero 6). It proved me wrong so beautifully and I enjoyed it so immensely that I’m not afraid to admit it’s one of my favorite films, animated or otherwise.

Outside of personal interest, Frozen is also the animated film that has seemingly taken over the world. It’s not simply a movie that made a lot of money, it’s a genuinely beloved phenomenon. Yes, I will even say it’s on Star Wars levels of movie mania, and it has gained an international appeal that few movies can claim (it ranks as the third highest grossing film in Japan, where it topped the box office for sixteen straight weeks).

Suffice to say, there are a lot of people who will want this sequel to deliver. And deliver it must.

Frozen

First and foremost, Frozen 2 must tell a story as meaningful as the first, but it shouldn’t simply rehash the same themes. It can expand on them and introduce new thematics, but simply having Elsa become fearful again would only feel like someone hit a reset button. It would undo Frozen’s ending, and that’s a no no.

Then there’s the villain scenario. Simply having Prince Hans return for revenge would be too simple. Hans can still make an appearance, but he’s served his thematic purposes, and no longer needs to be the villain. Either introduce a new villain who can also serve a purpose for the movie’s themes, or just leave out the villain concept altogether and center the story’s conflicts around the heroes (which Frozen also did to great success).

Introducing new characters almost seems inevitable, and that’s fine, provided they don’t take the spotlight away from the main characters. Olaf and Sven don’t need a third member of their comedic troupe, and Elsa most certainly doesn’t need a romantic interest (a large part of the character’s appeal has been her independence). Frozen strayed from Disney norms by focusing its primary relationship on sisterhood, putting romance in the background when it wasn’t tossing it aside entirely. Frozen 2 would be wise to do the same. It can’t be just another Disney movie. It has to live up to the uniqueness of the original.

Given Frozen’s predominantly girl power attitude, it wouldn’t be too surprising if a third female character is introduced. Once again, this is fine, so long as any such character doesn’t overshadow Anna and Elsa, or get shoehorned into the plot (no long-lost third sister, please).

Then there’s the songs. Good heavens, how does one follow-up Let It Go? But they’re going to have to give it a try. With how wonderfully infectious the songs in Frozen were, the sequel can’t have anything less than that. These songs must etch their way into my brain and – ironically enough – never let go. Frozen

 

Of course, I have great faith in Frozen 2. Disney has not set a release date, meaning they’ve more or less given the filmmakers the time they need to get it right. Disney has also given the filmmakers full creative control, another great sign. Best of all, those filmmakers are Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who masterminded the original Frozen and shaped what was originally going to be another Disney princess movie into something truly special.

So I do have faith in Frozen 2 (more so than I do Toy Story 4 or Finding Dory). I believe Disney knows they have awoken a sleeping giant with Frozen, and they’ll want to make sure the sequel to their most popular movie isn’t just a mere cash-in (this isn’t the Michael Eisner era anymore). But Frozen 2 must be a sequel of Toy Story 2-like quality. One that takes what you loved about the original, and adds to it while also creating an identity of its own. Frozen 2 is already guaranteed to win over the box office. But if it wants to live up to the original Frozen, it must win over our hearts as well. I think it can do just that.

In Defense of Big Hero 6’s Oscar Win

*Caution! Some spoilers follow.*

Big Hero 6

It seems Big Hero 6’s Oscar win for Best Animated Feature has been met with a lukewarm reception. While most agree that it’s a good movie, it seems a lot of people are still boohooing at the snubbing of The Lego Movie, or claiming that How to Train Your Dragon 2 “should have” won. I find this to be grossly unfair, because while I personally think The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was the most deserving winner (I named it as my favorite film of 2014), I have no qualms with Big Hero 6 taking home the gold. Big Hero 6 is a wonderful movie, and a more worthy winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar than a number of past recipients.

 

Again, I was primarily rooting for Princess Kaguya (heaven knows Isao Takahata is well overdue for an Oscar), but I still consider Big Hero 6 to be one of 2014’s best films – animated or otherwise – and it follows Frozen’s lead in adding more character development into Disney’s filmmaking process. As far as I’m concerned, it told a better story than The Lego Movie or How to Train Your Dragon 2.

 

I’m pretty much the only person out there who didn’t care for The Lego Movie, as I found it overly snarky and more than a little bit full of itself. Not to mention it followed just about every trope it so readily mocked. Suffice to say I didn’t lose any sleep over its snubbing. Meanwhile, How to Train Your Dragon 2, while good, suffered from the same overly-predictable nature of the first film in the series. It did boast one daring creative decision in killing off a character who appeared in both films, which gave the film some emotional weight, but otherwise the story went pretty much everywhere you expected it to at every turn (the entirely uninteresting villain didn’t help, either).

 

Big Hero 6 did have its own predictable elements, with a plot twist involving its villain being a bit obvious. But when we find out the villain’s motivation, he suddenly becomes a more complex and interesting character who adds something extra to the story. By comparison, Dragon 2’s villain could be summed up as “I’m evil because reasons.” Although some of the supporting cast in Big Hero 6 could have done with some more fleshing out, they at least aren’t dictated by a singular punchline like those in Dragon 2. But I’m not writing this to wag fingers at Legos and Dragons, I’m writing this because Big Hero 6 is a worthy Best Animated Feature winner that doesn’t seem to be getting its due.

 

Some have cried foul that Disney has won the award too often, though Big Hero 6 is technically only the second Disney film to win the award in question. It is true that Pixar (Disney’s subsidiary) has won the award seven times (that’s half of the award’s 14-year history), which seems a bit iffy. I myself am a believer in making exception for the exceptional, but Pixar is far from the only studio capable of producing exceptional animated films, and some of their victories have seemed far too easy (don’t get me started on Brave’s undeserved win). But Disney and Pixar are two separate creative entities, with different artists and filmmakers between them. You can’t claim that Disney’s second win is “too many” because Pixar has been handed the award a few too many times.

 

Again I’m a bit sidetracked. My point is that most people who are complaining about Big Hero 6’s win are basing their arguments on things besides the film itself. It’s been either “X-film should have won” or “Disney’s won too many times.” No one is taking into account that maybe Big Hero 6 is just a great movie. Which it is.

 

Hiro Hamada and Baymax are two of the most endearing of all Disney characters, and their relationship is one of the more unique in the Disney canon. Big Hero 6 becomes the story of Hiro coping with the death of his brother Tadashi. At first Hiro becomes depressed, then vengeful, before finally learning to live with his brother’s memory in his heart. Hiro learns to deal with the loss of his brother through his brother’s creation. There’s something really touching about this setup of a boy and his (brother’s) robot. Big Hero 6 deals with loss in a meaningful way, without it simply feeling like a means to capture that token “sad moment” like a lot of today’s animated films.

 

On top of that, we also get a fun super hero story that outdoes most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Simply put, Big Hero 6 is a film that combines a genuinely heartfelt narrative with top-notch blockbuster elements. I’ve seen the film multiple times now, and I’ve only enjoyed it more with subsequent viewings. Big Hero 6 is simply a great showcase of animated filmmaking and storytelling that ranks as one of Disney’s best animated features.

 

Of course, Big Hero 6 is no Spirited Away, The Incredibles or Frozen, but it is a worthy film to carry on their torch. It’s heartwarming, smartly-written, and a whole lot of fun. It’s an incredibly easy movie to love, and one that I’m happy to see win Best Animated Feature.

My Favorite Film of 2014

Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is my favorite film of 2014. The idea of me naming a Studio Ghibli film as the best of its year isn’t exactly unpredictable, but it’s with reason. No one makes films like Studio Ghibli. They weave together their stories with an unrivaled sense of imagination. They’re capable of  creating senses of awe and wonder even in their simplest moments. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is another of the studio’s triumphs.

Princess Kaguya tells the story of Japan’s oldest folktale. A bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess from the heavens in a bamboo stalk, and the princess transforms into a baby. She is to grow up as humans do, with the bamboo cutter and his wife serving as her parents.

Princess KaguyaDirected by the legendary Isao Takahata (his first film in 14 years), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is told with a sense of emotion and honesty that many animated films lack. It’s immediately inviting with the simplicity of its opening moments, and it grows into something deeper and emotionally complex as it goes on. Its story is told earnestly, and is crafted with such an elegance that it becomes something entirely unique, even among the Ghibli library.

Kaguya is depicted as a real person. She is not perfect, nor manufactured (even if the world around her wants her to be). She is a girl who (rapidly) grows into a woman. She is a bright and hopeful individual, but she has concerns and troubles of her own. Her life is filled with ups and downs, happiness and sadness. Life is never easy, not even for a princess, and Kaguya’s story is told with both beauty and tragedy in a simple, direct way.

Her parents lavish her with heavenly riches and the life of a princess, believing that anything short of the best is unworthy of her. But Kaguya simply wants to live a simple, peaceful, happy life. Her conflicts with her parents are never depicted as simple rebellion, nor are her parents made out to be antagonists (as they probably would be in most animated features). They’re simply people who are trying to do what they think is best, even if they don’t know how.

Princess KaguyaIsao Takahata takes this folktale, and turns it into a character-driven, emotional epic. And it’s all displayed with some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ranks alongside Ghibli’s own Spirited Away and Ponyo as one of the most visually captivating of animated films. It’s visuals are minimalistic, and have the look of simple paintings and sketches brought to life. Princess Kaguya is arresting from its very first frame, and it never lets go.

The superb visuals make The Tale of the Princess Kaguya one of the most striking of animated films, but the best part about them is that their beauty is only complimentary to the artistry of the story and its depth of character. It combines a human element with a sense of magic and wonder, as all the best Studio Ghibli films do, and it does so with a subtlety and gentleness that’s all its own.

For its heartfelt, emotional story and its incomparable presentation, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is, without a doubt, my favorite film of 2014.

Princess Kaguya

 

Runners-up

Guardians of the Galaxy

Big Hero 6

The Imitation Game

Song of the Sea