Maleficent (2014) Review

Disney has, in recent years, been leaning heavily on remaking their back catalogue of animated classics into live-action features. And while some of these remakes have been good (The Jungle Book, Aladdin), overall they beg the question as to why such remakes are necessary. If there’s one category of film that’s going to prove timeless, it’s Disney animated films, they never really needed to be remade.

Though credit where it’s due, the first two live-action Disney remakes of this decade were not only spread out by four years (compare that to 2019, in which we’ve seen four live-action Disney remakes in one year!), but they also attempted new spins on their source material more so than being straight-up remakes.

The first, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, while ultimately a bit of a jumbled mess, attempted to be something of a sequel to the original Disney animated film (or the Lewis Carol story itself). The second, 2014’s Maleficent, was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but from the perspective of its iconic villain.

Given how marketed Disney has made their villains over the years – and with Maleficent probably being the one most promoted as the “big bad” of Disney – the idea of making a movie entirely built around Maleficent made sense. Unfortunately, such a concept also risked changing the image of Maleficent entirely. It was unlikely that Disney would make a film about an entirely evil character, despite the fact that had been Maleficent’s appeal for decades (she was certainly more of a reason to watch Sleeping Beauty than Princess Aurora ever was). And, well, seeing as we rarely see the character marketed as Disney’s ‘big bad’ anymore, I think it’s safe to say that 2014’s Maleficent changed the general outlook on the character.

That’s not innately a bad thing. But it is the product of the film not so much being “Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s perspective” so much as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that paints Maleficent in a more sympathetic light, if that makes sense. She still looks the part of Mistress of Evil with her long horns, black robes, and penchant for being surrounded by green fire, but Maleficent never really feels like a villain in her titular movie, which kind of seems to defeat the purpose of building a movie around Maleficent to begin with.

That’s not to say that the film is a total bust, with its first half hour actually doing a pretty good job at setting up its story, and Angelina Jolie melds into the role of Maleficent with ease. But once the story enters the territory of Sleeping Beauty proper, the film feels rushed and cluttered. And some of the visual effects, while not bad on a technical level, can look too artificial.

The film begins by explaining that Maleficent is a dark fairy from the Moors, a magical forest realm that neighbors a human kingdom. When she was young, Maleficent befriended a human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, and the two eventually fell in love. But as they grew to adulthood, the two also grew more distant as they become more entrenched in their respective kingdoms’ differences.

The king of the human kingdom wages war on the Moors, but is mortally wounded in the ensuing battle by Maleficent. The dying king is returned to his kingdom, and declares that whomever can kill Maleficent will marry his daughter and become his successor. Stefen (Sharlto Copley), having grown consumed by his ambitions, takes advantage of the opportunity and his history with Maleficent. Stefen finds the dark fairy, and feigns to rekindle his friendship/romance with her. Stefen’s deceptions are dark, to say the least, as he drugs Maleficent with a sleeping potion with the intent on murdering her. Though memories of his friendship with Maleficent prevent Stefen from completing the dark deed, and decides to cut off Maleficent’s wings and takes them back to the kingdom as a trophy. Believing Stefen has successfully killed Maleficent, the dying king passes his crown down to him.

Meanwhile, Maleficent awakes in shock and horror at the loss of her wings. The depth of Stefen’s deception and cruelty have turned her into the ruthless ruler of the Moors, who transforms the once colorful forest kingdom into a place of dark magic, with walls of deadly thorns preventing humans from stepping foot in the Moors again.

Maleficent keeps an eye on the human kingdom by means of her raven-turned-manservant, Diaval (Sam Riley), who spies on Stefen’s kingdom for the dark fairy. One day, Diaval returns to Maleficent with news that King Stefen and his queen are to have a christening for their child, and Maleficent sees this as an opportunity to exact her revenge for Stefen’s betrayal. Maleficent appears at the christening, where she places (an oddly specific) curse on Stefen’s child. On her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, resulting in a death-like sleep. Stefan pleads for mercy, and Maleficent retorts by adding the caveat that the curse can only be broken by “true love’s kiss” which Maleficent doesn’t truly believe exists.

To protect the princess, she is sent away to live in hiding with three fairy godmothers: Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville). During the next sixteen years, the fairies (disguised in human form) raise Aurora (Elle Fanning), but the lost princess has an additional guardian in the form of Maleficent, who keeps a watchful eye over the girl for…some reason. Pretty soon, Maleficent grows fond of Aurora, and tries to undo the curse, to no avail (she said only true love’s kiss can break it, and she meant it). Meanwhile, Stefan’s paranoia of Maleficent’s curse drives him insane, to the point that he forgets the very reason he feared the curse to begin with.

Unfortunately, it’s the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora that ends up being the movie’s downfall. It’s a nice twist on the Disney fairy tale to center the story on a mother/daughter relationship, but the problem is said relationship just never feels believable.

Again, I stress that the first half hour (which covers up to about the point the curse is placed) is actually well done. It does a good job at painting both Maleficent and Stefan as tragic figures in different ways. Maleficent’s downfall comes across as sympathetic, and Stefan’s betrayal – as well as his reason for slipping into insanity – resonate well. And you have to commend the filmmakers for treading some seriously dark ground for a Disney movie (the scene in which Stefan drugs Maleficent and steals her wings is alluding to exactly what it sounds like). It certainly succeeds in making Maleficent sympathetic despite her villainous actions.

The problem with Maleficent as a film is that, once the storyline veers into the familiar Sleeping Beauty territory, it seems to thrown too many elements together all at once, and rushes through key plot points, to the point that some characters, such as Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) end up becoming bit players, and just like the original, we barely get to know Aurora as a character (you’d think rectifying the character’s presence would be a key reason for a remake). Hell, even Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon – probably the most iconic imagery of the original animated film – is undone and rushed through, and she’s not even the one who fills the dragon role in her own film (it’s one of the many forms she changes Diaval into during the film).

Maleficent is a two-plus hour film trapped in an hour and a half running time. The strong pacing and character moments are present in the first half hour, but the rest of the film feels so rushed going through the paces, that the story and characters end up suffering. The key victim, again, is Maleficent and Aurora’s relationship, which is supposed to be the heart of the movie. I’m still not sure why Maleficent decides to watch over Aurora as a kind of secret godmother. And her growing love for Aurora, which should be the crux of the film, just doesn’t resonate.

Then there are the visual effects. The visual effects of the film have a strangely garish look to them. They don’t look bad or outdated, just… fake. The Moors is home to many a fairy tale creature (the tree guys are pretty cool looking), but they all really stand out as visual effects. I know people love to belittle CG as looking “fake” in movies, but that’s often an overblown complaint fueled by nostalgia for the pre-CG days. But in Maleficent, I can understand the complaint a bit. It doesn’t look technically bad, just overly artificial. And the less said of the three fairy godmothers and their creepy uncanny valley, the better.

These Disney live-action remakes are so commonplace today, and stick so closely to the originals, that you sometimes forget that the earlier efforts were aiming for new spins on the material. And while Maleficent ultimately stumbles, it can be appreciated for what it attempted to accomplish through one of Disney’s most iconic villains.

 

5

Francis Ford Coppola, You’re Despicable

*Alternative title: Settle down, Mr. Coppola, it’s Time for your Nap*

Recently, filmmaker Martin Scorsese put his foot in his mouth with some blatantly ignorant statements in regards to Marvel movies. When asked his opinion on Marvel films, rather than simply stating that they weren’t his cup of tea, instead made the blanket statement that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema.”

Suffice to say, Mr. Scorsese received some much-deserved tongue-lashings from the people who work hard to make Marvel movies a part of cinema. And by “a part of cinema,” I actually mean the absolute biggest part of cinema today. Fans of the Marvel films also (rightfully) took offense to Scorsese’s dismissively ignorant statements.

Well, it seems Martin Scorsese has at least one cheerleader on his side, as fellow out-of-touch geezer Hollywood sacred cow Francis Ford Coppola has rallied to the defense of his old frat buddy from the always-overhyped New Hollywood era (an era which we really should stop referring to as “new” unless we mean it with absolute irony). And Coppola’s words are even more ignorant, condescending and pompous than Scorsese’s.

As ignorant as Scorsese’s claims that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema” were, at least he came across as attempting to be respectful even in his ignorance. But Coppola, when asked for his response on the matter, came across as little more than a self-righteous jackass. His exact quote went as follows.

“When Martin Scorsese says that Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right, because we expect to learn something from cinema. We expect to gain something—some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Calm down there, grandpa. Just because the new music the kids are listening’ to doesn’t sound like what was around in your day doesn’t mean it’s the devil.

Seriously, what an ass.

Now I have to needlessly defend myself, because despite the fact that Coppola’s words are entirely blanketed, ridiculing the many people that make Marvel movies as well as the millions of people who see them, because he’s one of Hollywood’s deities, anyone who calls him on his bullcrap will be labelled as an angry fanboy or whatever. So allow me to say that I don’t care if old man Coppola doesn’t like Marvel movies. As I said about Scorsese, some people just won’t like some types of movies. That’s fine. He’s entitled to not like Marvel movies.

It’s not that he doesn’t like Marvel movies that’s the problem, it’s that through his complete dismissal of them – particularly by referring to them as “despicable” – Mr. Coppola comes across as little more than a self-righteous ass, who has nothing but utter contempt for the average moviegoer.

“The “New Hollywood” generation in a nutshell.”

Both Scorsese and (far more so) Coppala don’t come across as intellectual filmmakers critiquing the younger generation of their craft with these statements. More, they sound like a bunch of butthurt old men who still can’t accept the fact that their preferred style of movie hasn’t been the dominant force in cinema for decades (in fact, their time at the top was actually very short lived, all things considered). Their words don’t come across as wisdom (which I’m sure they think they do), just sour grapes. Nothing more.

Believe it or not, Mr. Coppola, but movies were originally created for entertainment’s sake. And while it’s great that they developed in so many great ways over time and audiences can learn from them, entertainment is still kind of important. At least Scorsese’s films can claim to have that element to them.

And yes, Mr. Coppola, even big franchises and super hero movies can teach audiences something. Just because they may not be self-righteous character studies or anti-war dramas doesn’t mean they can’t also be about something. Just because people actually, y’know, want to see them doesn’t mean they can’t also be art. But you know what, even if a movie is solely aiming for entertainment, that’s fine too. And you know what, even something like that should be considered art if it’s made well enough.

It’s especially Coppola’s use of the word “despicable” that most paints him as a pompous ass. What’s despicable about them? That they’re franchised and make money and have merchandise? I get that these Hollywood types love to spew the same, generic anti-capitalist rhetoric (while also being millionaires), but hey, it’s not evil if these filmmakers and studios want to make money. Maybe that doesn’t fit your worldview. Okay, you’re allowed that. But ‘despicable?’ Nope.

It’s also a funny choice of word, calling movies about heroes and good vs. evil as “despicable,” considering this is the same guy who makes movies about mobsters which conveniently skip over the atrocities the mob committed towards innocent civilians. Funny how The Godfather fails to bring up aspects such as human trafficking, and racketeering that sent many into poverty, it’s almost like a convenient way to paint monsters as sympathetic… But, y’know, heroes in silly costumes fighting alien villains or whatever, that’s despicable. Sure thing there, buddy.

Such statements from the likes of Coppola are just another glaring example of Hollywood’s utter disconnect with the average moviegoer. Coppola is speaking as a pompous filmmaker who makes movies for himself and his buddies, who either see these movies for free or are so rich they don’t even have to think about the cost. Well, they’re allowed to do that if they want. But the average person, who actually has to spend their hard-earned money to see movies whenever they can manage the spare time, have a tendency to prefer using said time and money on something entertaining that they’ll remember, over something that a self-righteous filmmaker made to preach to them. Heaven forbid after a rough week of work or school or what have you, that most people would want to spend their money to unwind with a superhero romp.

Yeah yeah, I know I’m sounding harsh. But honestly, Coppola’s words were harsh, condescending, and belittling to many, many people. So I kind of find it hard to go easy on the man right now. At least Scorsese just seemed “out-of-touch” ignorant with his comments (and at least Scorsese has made a good few movies that deserve their praise), but Francis Ford Coppola’s comments just paint him as a royal ass, who is so used to being surrounded by Hollywood types who treat him like a god, that he can’t comprehend that the rest of the world has moved on to other, far more entertaining movies.

The Addams Family (2019) Review

When it comes to the Great War – and by ‘the Great War’ I am of course referring to the age-old Addams Family vs. Munsters debate – I usually find myself ultimately siding with the Munsters. That’s not to say that I dislike the Addams Family, and I certainly appreciate the (surprisingly large) influence they’ve had on American pop culture from their inception in comic strips over eight decades ago. But in regards to the comparisons between the two franchises, the concept of the Munsters just makes more sense to me.

The Munsters were a traditional American family, immigrating from “the old country” to America. It just so happened that the Munster family was an assortment of classic movie monster archetypes. It was a fish-out-of-water scenario, with the Munsters being completely naive to the fact that the average person wasn’t a vampire or a Frankenstein’s monster, which of course lead to many a misunderstanding and unintentional frights. This toyed with the idea that the “normal” people around them were much weirder than the Munsters themselves.

The Addams Family, by comparison, is much less defined. They’re macabre, and they frequently boast some dark humor. But they’re also a bit inconsistent. Some of them are undead, some of them are oddities (like the hairy “Cousin Itt”) and some are just…weird people, I guess. That’s all well and fine, but they kind of lose some of their charm when their personalities become as all over the place as their family tree.

“The reference to Stephen King’s It is fun. Too bad it was spoiled in all the trailers.”

A good example of what I mean happens in this 2019 animated feature adaptation: Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz), daughter of Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia Addams (Charlize Theron), is looking to displease her mother. Not out of teenage rebellion, but because the Addamses are weird and opposite of everyone else, so displeasing parents is to the Addamses what pleasing parents is to normal people. Wednesday hopes to upset her mother by changing her physical appearance (by wearing bright pink colors, skirts and hairbands, of course). But when her mother disapproves, Wednesday takes offense and decides to run away from home to escape her overbearing mother. So which is it? Do the Addamses indulge in negativity and conflict or do they have more relatable human wants and desires, and just happen to be weird in outward appearance and behavior? It’s a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.

It’s these weird inconsistencies with the characters that can, in certain adaptations, make it hard to empathize with the Addams Family. Sadly, I think this movie is an example of just that. It can’t seem to decide if the Addamses are simply misunderstood (which seems to be what it’s trying to do thematically) or if they actually work on some bizarro, backwards logic and morality.

Along with the plot of Wednesday and Morticia butting heads, there are two additional main plot lines, which prove to be spread too thin for a movie that barely misses the hour and a half mark in its runtime.

The other family-based dynamic is between Gomez and his son, Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). Pugsly has come of age to perform a “Sabre Mazurka,” a swordfight/dance that serves as a kind of right of passage for Addams boys to become Addams men. Pugsley is disinterested in learning sword fighting, being far more occupied with explosives. This leaves Gomez fearing that Pugsley will embarrass himself on his big day.

It may have been better had the film settled on the two parent/child plots, since they’re narratively and thematically similar, and focus on the core group of characters, with Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) in the mix for good measure. But the third aforementioned plotline involves the swampland surrounding the Addamses’ hilltop home being replaced by a planned community. This not only means multitudes of ‘regular’ human beings now live just under the hill, but because the swamps are gone, the fog blocking the Addamses’ house from view has disappeared. This means that the Addamses now have to socialize with the world around them which, as you probably guess, doesn’t tend to go too well.

This is especially true in the case of Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a reality TV show host and homemaker, who sees the Addamses as a disturbance to her budding neighborhood. Needler then makes it her mission to run the Addamses out of town to maintain a “perfect neighborhood” image.

Honestly, it’s this third plot that drags the story down. The other two storylines at least mirror each other in a way that makes sense. But this story with Needler’s disdain for the Addamses feels like a different movie, and yet, it’s probably the plotline that gets the most attention.

The Addams Family can be a funny movie at times. I think I even let out an audible laugh on a couple of occasions. The film is admittedly at its best when it’s acting more like a gag reel, with the titular family’s oddball, macabre nature providing some good laughs. Take, for example, how the film introduces the Addams family’s butler Lurch into the picture. In the movie’s opening moments, when Gomez and Morticia are moving to New Jersey, they hit an escaped asylum inmate (Lurch) with their car, and see the asylum on a nearby hill, which they then decide will make a perfect home to raise their family. They then just kind of pick Lurch up and he becomes their butler on the spot, no questions asked.

It’s the silly little moments of dark and oddball humor such as that when The Addams Family is at its best. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough of it weaved into the main plots, so when they do show up, they feel separated from everything else going on. As you can imagine, with three main plots in a movie that’s slightly under an hour and a half, with various series of gags that seem removed from those plots thrown in, The Addams Family really feels stretched thin and episodic.

That’s not to say that there’s anything innately horrible with The Addams Family, just that there’s nothing particularly special about it, and none of its elements feel like they click together to form a proper movie.

The animation can also be a bit of a mixed bag. As you could tell from a glance, the animation is cartoonishly exaggerated to the nth degree. That can be fine in some cases, and it’s not nearly as over-animated as the Hotel Transylvania movies, but something about the visual look of The Addams Family just didn’t quite work for me. I like the character designs for the Addamses themselves. Wednesday’s braids ending in nooses is a particularly nice touch, and Uncle Fester’s bulbous head leads to some fun physical comedy. But the designs for the ‘regular’ humans leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe that was the point, like the ‘normal’ people are the real weirdos, but they don’t look weird in an interesting or appealing way that catches the eye. They look more akin to the kind of animated characters you’d see in a straight-to-video movie from the late 2000s, than from a theatrically released feature at the tail-end of the 2010s.

I also enjoyed the voice cast for the film, with particular highlights being Isaac, Theron and Moretz. It’s just a shame that such a spot-on cast doesn’t have a better film to showcase their vocal talents.

I admit I had fun at times watching The Addams Family. It has its charms, but the film’s inability to find a cohesive flow between its elements, combined with the inconsistent personalities and motivations of the Addamses themselves, make it a hard movie to recommend.

Or maybe I’m just an angry Munsters fanboy.

 

4

Abominable Review

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was seen as Pixar’s big rival in the world of CG animated features. Though Dreamworks has had a number of animated hits, their habit of strictly following the template of animated features of their time (both in the 2000s and into the 2010s) combined with what seems to be a willingness to green light every last idea that enters their door (Boss Baby), made Pixar’s inevitable victory in this so-called “war” a foregone conclusion long ago. And with Disney rising to prominence in the CG animation front over the past several years, the idea of Dreamworks being a rival to either of the Mouse House’s two premiere animation brands seems all the more like a distant memory.

That’s not to say that Dreamworks has completely fallen off the map (I still quite enjoy the first two Shrek films and the Kung Fu Panda trilogy), and every now and again they still crank out a good movie.

Case in point: Abominable, a charming and heartfelt animated feature from Dreamworks Animation’s “Pearl Studio” division, a joint venture between Dreamworks and Chinese investment companies. Though even with its charms and emotional strengths, Abominable still ultimately falls short of its full potential by once again adhering too closely to Dreamworks’ rulebook.

Abominable tells the story of Yi (Chloe Bennet), a young Chinese girl who has recently lost her father. Living with her mother and grandmother, Yi has taken to performing odd jobs around town in order to save up money to go on the trip around Asia that her father had always wanted to go on, but died before he had the chance. But Yi’s world is thrown into disarray when she discovers a yeti living on top of her apartment building. Yi soon befriends the yeti, naming him ‘Everest’ (after his home), and is determined to keep him safe.

It turns out this yeti has escaped captivation from a wealthy man named Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who recently caught the creature on an expedition to Mount Everest, after having searched years for the creature following an encounter with it in his youth. Determined to prove the yeti’s existence after being called a liar his entire life, Mr. Burnish has recruited zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), as well as a small, private army, to help him reclaim the yeti.

Fearing for Everest, Yi sneaks the Yeti onto a departing ship, but in the spur of the moment, ends up accompanying Everest on his journey home. But Yi isn’t alone on her adventure to escort Everest back to…Everest. Caught in the middle of all the commotion are Yi’s friends from her apartment: Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a self-absorbed pretty boy, and his younger brother Peng (Albert Tsai).

If it all sounds a bit familiar by now, that’s because, well, it is. Abominable is ultimately a good movie, as it tells its story well and by the film’s third act, it hits the right emotional beats. But Abominable is also a movie that can feel like it came off a conveyor belt, as the story it does tell is all too familiar for animated features of today. Granted, I would rather see a predictable good movie than an original bad one, but I can’t help but feel just a handful of tweaks to Abominable’s story structure could have ascended it from being simply a ‘good’ animated feature to a great one.

Again, there’s nothing inherently bad about Abominable. But from the main character’s story with a deceased parent, the friendly, misunderstood creature, the comic relief, and the overall pathway of the story, Abominable is very much following the proverbial animated movie guidebook. I suppose the film does attempt a bit of a twist with its villain scenario, but it seems like many animated films do that these days. And unlike in something like Frozen, where the villain twist had thematic depth that subverted Disney’s tropes, Abominable’s ‘twist’ just seems to kind of happen for the sake of it. Some might point out Yi’s lack of a romantic interest to be of note, but again, that’s become pretty commonplace for animated heroines over the past few years (and it’s something that, once again, Frozen did infinitely better).

It’s the over familiarity of it all which has plagued numerous Dreamworks animated films in the past. While Pixar – Dreamworks’s one-time rival – continue to take animated storytelling to new heights (even if they may not do so quite as consistently as they once did), Dreamworks often seems to simply make due with the status quo. Sure, not every movie can be a masterpiece, and sometimes a lighter, more familiar movie is perfectly fine (and it is here). But I worry that Dreamworks is too okay with ‘perfectly fine’ all too often, instead of aiming for something greater.

By now I’m probably sounding pretty negative about Abominable. But it should be noted that Abominable is a movie I feel bad saying anything bad about. Because it is a charming and heartwarming feature, despite its lack of originality. And I certainly found it a more enjoyable offering from Dreamworks than How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

While the third entry in the Dragon series felt overly cluttered with a small army of characters (most of whom felt pretty one-note even back in its first installment), Abominable keeps things simple and focused. We have a trio of heroes, a duo of primary villains, and a huggable yeti as the centerpiece. Yi is a likable heroine, and I applaud how the film at first presents Jin as a one-dimensional character who wouldn’t have felt out of place as a secondary character in the Dragons films, but goes through his own miniature story arc that makes him a much stronger character as the film goes on.

The film is also well animated, with memorable character designs and colorful scenery. And of course, every time the yeti uses its magic, the film provides plenty of visual splendor.

Abominable certainly has a lot going for it. Between its sharp animation, charming characters, and genuine heartfelt moments, Abominable should delight children as well as older audiences. But if you’ve seen pretty much any of the better half of Dreamworks’s animated output, you basically know everything you’re getting from Abominable, which ultimately prevents its many merits from shining as brightly as they should.

 

6

You’re Wrong, Scorsese. Marvel Movies ARE Cinema

*Alternative title: Go Home, Scorsese. You’re Drunk*

Martin Scorsese is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, and one of Hollywood’s ‘sacred cows.’ But recently, he made a statement which  – in its blanketed ignorance – paints him as part of the problem with the world of cinema.

The basis of Scorsese’s claims is that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” and that they are more akin to “theme parks.” This, of course, just comes off as the latest in the never-ending examples of the overblown egos and self-importance of Hollywood and its “serious” filmmakers and critics. It’s a display of the utter contempt they have for the average moviegoer, and the films that don’t directly pander to themselves, that makes so many in the industry so very hard to like.

Here is Mr. Scorsese’s exact statement in regards to Marvel movies.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

The statement is profusely arrogant and condescending on Scorsese’s part.  Granted, not every type of movie is for everyone. But Scorsese’s comments aren’t a display of a personal disinterest. Rather, the things Scorsese is saying are entirely dismissive to everyone who works in front of and behind the cameras on Marvel movies, and insulting to the audiences that continue to see them (which, by the way, are in far greater numbers than the audience for any Scorsese film).

Scorsese briefly tries to save face by throwing in the words “as well made as they are” in regards to Marvel movies. But it means very little to say that they’re “well made” while simultaneously stating that they don’t qualify as cinema, and that the actors could only ever possibly “do the best they can under the circumstances” if they’re cast in a superhero film. Way to dismiss any and all acting performances that go into these movies just because they’re in a genre you have a blatant bias against. Hey, at least when these Marvel movies re-use actors, they’re playing the same characters and furthering their stories, as opposed to casting Robert De Niro as different sociopath archetypes who may as well be the same character in the same story. But I digress.

When I first read Scorsese’s statements on Marvel movies, it reminded me of something else the famed director said way back in 2004. After The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King achieved the biggest clean sweep in Oscar history, complete with a Best Picture win (a rare instance when the Academy actually knew what they were doing), Scorsese was asked if he’d ever be interested in making fantasy movies. Scorsese’s response…

Real movies with real people.” 

It’s a predictably ego-centric answer from a director who has long-since been made out to be a Hollywood deity, though one I’m sure he himself though sounded profound. If he’s not interested in making fantasy movies, that’s fine. But again, his response was both dismissive and condescending.

“I don’t know, I find the likes of Captain America and Gandalf to be closer to “real people” than violent psychopaths like Travis Bickle.”

Fantasy movies, whether they be sword and sorcery or super heroes or what have you, are fully capable of delivering deep stories that connect with human emotion and psychology. They’re merely different methods of doing so.

Believe it or not, Mr. Scorsese, but films don’t have to follow your rulebook in order to qualify as films. There are these wonderful things called “styles,” “genres” and “mediums.” There are different kinds of artists with all kinds of different voices and tastes. They may not all be good, but just because their path doesn’t directly follow yours doesn’t mean their works should be disqualified, or that they “don’t count.” Maybe you don’t care for a specific genre of movie. Okay, that’s fine. But saying that it’s “not cinema” and just waving off their very existence is profoundly arrogant.

By now, I’m sure the film buffs who would rally to Scorsese’s defense and jump at any opportunity to lambast super hero films and the like would assume I’m just a rambling Marvel fanboy, or that I’m trying to be cool and edgy by talking bad about one of cinema’s most acclaimed directors. But I’d like to point out that I can’t remember the last time I read a Marvel comic book, nor have I enjoyed every MCU film (Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk and Captain Marvel were pretty mediocre, and the less said of Iron Man 3, the better). Nor do I hate Scorsese’s body of work, some of it (like Goodfellas) I’ve quite enjoyed, though I admit I find Raging Bull to be an overrated bore.

I’m merely writing this because Scorsese’s comments relished in their own ignorance. And it’s mindsets like those represented in Scorsese’s comments that are holding the world of cinema back in many ways. Both those in Hollywood and film buffs put themselves on a pedestal, and treat themselves like they’re part of an elite club. And the common moviegoer, or those “lesser” filmmakers who make films audiences actually want to see aren’t allowed to join. It’s a level of pretentiousness that seems to constantly ooze out of Hollywood types, who in turn act completely dumbfounded as to why they get such a bad reputation. Scorsese may be a great filmmaker in many respects, but with statements like these, he proves he’s part of Hollywood’s problem.

For all the open-mindedness Hollywood likes to give itself a pat on the back for, they sure do have a pretty closed mind when it comes to their own  mediums. It’s like they want to punish movies for making money, or being crowd-pleasers, or if they’re rooted in fantasy or created with animation, etc. If Hollywood were half as open-minded as they bragged themselves up to be, they’d have no qualms with putting such films on equal levels with their preferred style. They should judge every film by how good they are individually, as opposed to considering certain types of films to be innately superior or inferior to others.

Though the world of video games has issues of its own, this “country club” mentality of those within its industry certainly isn’t one of them. In these regards, the video game industry has been completely open-minded as to what constitutes a great work in their medium. There’s never been a differentiating between where or how a game was made in terms of the quality of the end product. There’s never been a stigma against genres or franchises or commercially successful works. Sure, the self-righteous hipster types like Ben Croshaw tried their damndest to replicate the ignorances of the movie world and integrate it into the world of video games during the early 2010s. But thankfully, those clowns ultimately lost their battle, and no one in their right mind has adopted their self-indulgent contempt against popular works.

So while “serious” filmmakers may ridicule popular movies as “not being cinema,” the video game world happily embraces such popular works. I think it’s safe to say the Super Mario franchise has produced many of the most acclaimed video games ever made, while also being extremely cartoonish in nature and having mass commercial appeal, not to mention numerous sequels and countless spinoffs. Not every game with the name ‘Super Mario’ in the title may be an all-time great, but there’s no built in stigma against it for its tone, success, or commercial standing that prevents the Mario games that deserve such praise from earning it.

The world of movies, and the likes of Martin Scorsese, could certainly learn a thing or two about broadening their outlook on their own medium. Perhaps the best retort to Scorsese’s indulgently ignorant claims comes from Samuel L. Jackson, who of course has portrayed Agent Nick Fury in more than a few of the MCU films.

Mr. Jackson’s response went as follows…

“I mean that’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. Everybody’s got an opinion, so I mean it’s okay. Ain’t going to stop nobody from making movies.”

Essentially, Jackson found a polite way to say “everyone has their own taste, but don’t be a pompous ass and disregard the hard work that goes into things that don’t fit your niche, as well as their audience.” Well said, Mr. Jackson.

So Mr. Scorsese, the point is it’s okay if real people enjoy watching Marvel movies. While no category of movie will ever be absolutely good, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has provided mostly good movies so far. They may not be your kind of movies, but they are still very much cinema.

As for Mr. Scorsese using “theme parks” as a derogatory terminology, well, if I had the choice to ride Space Mountain or sit through an overly-long character study about a wife-beating, sociopathic boxer, the theme park wins. Hands down.

The Peanut Butter Falcon Review

The Peanut Butter Falcon – despite its seemingly random title – is a pretty sweet film. It tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a twenty-two year old man with Down syndrome. Zak’s family abandoned him, and as such, he has become a ward of the state of North Carolina, resulting in him living in a retirement home with senior citizens.

Zak is a fan of professional wrestling, and watches old VHS tapes of his idol, professional wrestler “The Salt Water Redneck” (Thomas Hayden Church), a kind of (salt)watered down parody of Stone Cold Steve Austin. These VHS tapes advertise Saltwater Redneck’s professional wrestling school, which Zak hopes to one day attend to live his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Zak lives under the watchful eye of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who is kind to him, but overprotective. One night, Zak’s elderly roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), who’s supportive of Zak’s dream, provides Zak the opportunity to slip out of the retirement home, and run away to pursue his dream. With Zak missing, Eleanor is sent to retrieve him, as the retirement home doesn’t wish to report to the state that they’ve lost a resident.

During his excursions, Zak happens upon Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman-turned-thief. Tyler has recently hit hard times. No longer having his fisherman’s license and resorting to stealing crabs, Tyler runs afoul of a group of crabbers, which results in escalating confrontations between them, culminating with Tyler setting the crabbers’ equipment on fire.

Tyler is on the run from the crabbers when he bumps into Zak. Though their interactions are at first rocky, Zak and Tyler soon form a fast friendship. Tyler is on his way to Florida, where he hopes to start a new life, and after learning of Zak’s dream to attend Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school, decides to take Zak to his destination on his way to Florida. They are eventually joined by Eleanor, who agrees to take Zak to the wrestling school, on the condition she can take him back to the retirement home afterwards. Meanwhile, the crabbers remain on Tyler’s trail throughout.

The Peanut Butter Falcon definitely deserves heaps of praise for how confidently it puts Zack Gottsagen in the driver’s seat throughout the movie. Most movies would probably try to cast an established actor in a “disabled” role for the sake of Oscar-bait, but directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz deserve credit for actually casting an actor with Down syndrome in the film’s lead role, which is not only pleasant move in itself, but also reinforces the main theme of the movie. Eleanor may be overprotective of Zak, and others either lack confidence in his abilities or outright make fun of him, but Zak – much like the actor who portrays him – is capable of more than people give him credit for. The film as a whole has a nice message of how having disabilities doesn’t mean you’re any less than anyone else. Oftentimes, all anyone needs is one person to believe in them (in Zak’s case, it’s Tyler) in order for them to reach their potential, and that can often overcome any supposed shortcomings.

And credit where it’s due, Shia LaBeouf also gives a noteworthy performance, which seems like such a weird thing to say in 2019. LaBeouf has been in so many stinkers and had such an odd public persona for so long that you almost forget the better performances he had given in the earlier years of his career. And The Peanut Butter Falcon is definitely the best “Shia LaBeouf movie” since those early days.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Peanut Butter Falcon and its feel-good nature, which feels increasingly rare in this day and age when we seem to glorify cynicism. The movie is definitely going for a modern day “Mark Twain” vibe, which it mostly nails. But the film would probably stick the landing in that regard all the more if Shia LaBeouf’s character didn’t outright compare his and Zak’s situation to a Mark Twain story (it’s fine to make your influences obvious, but if you’re going to be overt with your inspirations, it’s probably best not to bluntly name-drop them in dialogue. The audience can catch on without needing to have it spelled out for them).

I also have to admit it’s nice to see a movie depict professional wrestling in a mostly positive light, which is the second such 2019 film to do so (after Fighting with my Family), which has to be some kind of record. The Peanut Butter Falcon even includes cameos from real-life, old-time pro wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley (the latter of which seems to be the go-to wrestler cameo for movies).

There are, unfortunately, a few aspects that prevented me from liking The Peanut Butter Falcon even more than I did. The first is that the film features a few “twists” that I think are meant to surprise the audience as unexpected, but that really end up feeling like the kind of obvious turns pretty much any indie flick would make. It’s not that I necessarily dislike the directions the story takes in these regards, just that they’re so predictable for an indie film that I feel they should be called out as cliched. After all, a big-budget blockbuster would receive insurmountable flack from professional critics if it featured such obvious tropes of its category on display as prominently as The Peanut Butter Falcon does. I see no reason why indie films should so easily get out of Dodge for adhering so closely to their rulebook.

Additionally, I don’t think the continued role of the antagonists (the crabbers) felt necessary. It’s fine at first when it gives Tyler a reason to be on the run, but after that, I don’t really feel like the idea of bad guys being in pursuit of the main characters the whole time really fits in with the rest of the movie. This ties into my other big complaint with the movie: the ending.

Without spoiling anything, the film ends rather abruptly, with the closing minutes unceremoniously skipping over the fates of the villainous crabbers.  With the way the film ends, the different narratives of the film just seem to come to a screeching halt, and not in a way that satisfyingly ties them all together. They just kind of end, and happen to end concurrently, but individually. Granted, I’m a fan of movies leaving some questions unanswered, but in a film that prides itself so much on its feel good nature, wouldn’t the icing on the cake be for something like Zak and his hero, the Salt Water Redneck, to subdue the baddies with some wrestling moves? That might be a little too entertaining, I suppose.

Still, The Peanut Butter Falcon definitely deserves an ‘A’ for effort. Though it doesn’t reach its full potential, the film succeeds in creating a heartwarming and genuine feel good story that is solidly entertaining. And with so many indie films being so hellbent on telling me how bad people are and showcasing political sad sack-ery, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a definite breath of fresh air.

 

6

How 2019 is a One of a Kind Movie Year

This is something I brought up in my 800th blog back in the day, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out again (plus, heaven knows I could really use with more updates as of late). And this something is the simple fact that I think 2019 is shaping up to be a one of a kind year for movies.

“How so?” you may be asking. The reason is that 2019 is (quite obviously) the last year of the decade, but in an instance of “stars aligning,” many of the films being released in 2019 are appropriately bringing a close to this decade in cinema.

Take for example Avengers: Endgame, the biggest film of the year (and all time, boy does it feel good to say that). Though the first two Marvel Cinematic Universe films were released in 2008, the majority of the MCU has been the dominant force in movies of the 2010s. Year after year this decade, Marvel has released blockbuster after blockbuster in their colossal crossover mega-franchise. And though the MCU is scheduled to continue, Endgame brought everything in the MCU thus far to a grand, satisfying close. More than twenty MCU films were released during the 2010s, and fittingly, the MCU’s grand finale (up to this point) was released in the last year of the 2010s.

Similarly, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which began with The Force Awakens in 2015, will come to its conclusion in 2019 with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Star Wars movies never were good with titles). This will make it the only Star Wars trilogy to be a part of a single decade. The original Star Wars trilogy began in 1977, with the two subsequent installments being released in the 1980s. While the Star Wars prequel trilogy began in 1999, and continued into the 2000s. But the Star Wars sequel trilogy is uniquely tied to a singular decade which, in a weird way, I think makes it the most decade-defining trilogy in the franchise.

On a much smaller note, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which began in 2010 at the very start of this decade, saw its third and final installment hit theaters this year, meaning Dreamworks’s trilogy bookended the movie decade. Hell, even the Stephen King “It” duology released its second half in 2019, after the first half became one of the most unexpected success stories of the movie decade.

Speaking of unexpected success stories, that brings us to Disney’s Frozen, which I think is safe to say was the movie surprise of the 2010s. Sure, you expect Disney animated films to be successful, but Frozen was on a whole other level, and with relatively little fanfare in the buildup to its 2013 release. Not only was Frozen Disney’s most iconic animated feature in decades, it became one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in history. Fittingly enough Frozen – the biggest movie/franchise to originate in this decade – will see the release of its long-awaited sequel towards the end of 2019. And though there’s nothing definitively “final” about Frozen II (that we know of yet) like there is for The Rise of Skywalker or Endgame, the fact that this decade’s biggest contribution to pop culture will be getting a sequel as the decade comes to a close just feels fitting.

While the final year of any decade has film buffs reflecting on the past ten years of cinema and trying to compile their favorites from within that time, I don’t think there’s been another instance of another ‘last year of the decade’ where the finality of it was reflected so strongly in its films. Again, I feel it’s a “stars aligning” situation, where so many individual elements just came together. Perhaps some of these “endings” to the movies of the 2010s were intentionally released at the decade’s end. But the fact that so many of them fell so neatly into place seems like an unprecedented occurrence in the movie world. I’m happy to be experiencing such a unique year in film.