Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers for both the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. But if you honestly don’t know the story of Star Wars by this point, well, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Rewind the clock back to 1999. It had been sixteen years since Return of the Jedi wrapped up the original Star Wars trilogy, a series that had an unparalleled impact on film and popular culture. The Star Wars universe had expanded to video games, comic books, novels, and other media in that time (remember those made-for-TV Ewoks movies?), building on the overall mythology of the Galaxy far, far away. Of course, fans longed for a return to the film series which started it all, which George Lucas had indeed promised would happen after he retroactively christened the original Star Wars film as “Episode IV,” indicating that a second trilogy, which served as prequels to the originals, had become an inevitability.

After the original trilogy saw theatrical re-releases through their “special editions” in 1997, George Lucas finally began work on his long-promised prequel trilogy, taking on the role of director for the first time since the original Star Wars film. Anticipation for Episode 1’s release in 1999 was unrivaled at the time. Audiences were camped out at movie theaters weeks ahead of release (keep in mind this was still before securing your ticket online was a thing), and fans speculated on how the story would unfold. Obviously, with the fact that this was a prequel series, we all knew where it would eventually end up, but that didn’t stop the excitement of guessing how it would all play out to get there. We all had glimpses of the new and returning characters through the obscene amount of merchandise that preceded the film’s release, and couldn’t help but get excited. How did R2-D2 and C3-P0 meet? How did Palpatine turn Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force? Was that badass Darth Maul dude going to be this trilogy’s answer to Darth Vader?

Then, in May of 1999, what was surely going to be the biggest movie ever finally happened in the form of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

And it was a bit underwhelming.

“Meeting Jar-Jar Binks…Can’t see how this could go wrong.”

In its day, the disappointment associated with The Phantom Menace was unheard of, and it reverberated to the subsequent prequel entries. While the negative reception back in 1999 may have been a tad extreme, it wasn’t undeserved, either. While the prequel trilogy may not have been the “worst movies ever” that many fans liked to paint them as, they are nonetheless incredibly flawed and clunky films that even create some glaring plot holes for the original trilogy.

Normally, I’m the kind of person who can look past a plot hole, as I understand the immense undertakings required of storytelling and filmmaking mean that mistakes are bound to happen somewhere. But the plot holes created in these Star Wars prequels are so monumentally contradictory to what the original films established, it seems as though George Lucas himself hadn’t seen his own movies to attempt to tie the stories together.

In The Phantom Menace, we are introduced to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), a Jedi ‘Padawan’ under the tutelage of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a Jedi knight whose independence from Jedi traditions leads him to often butt heads with the Jedi council. Although Qui-Gon Jinn is one of the best characters introduced in the prequels, his very existence already creates a plot hole in regards to the original films. In The Empire Strikes Back, we are informed that Yoda was Obi-Wan’s mentor, and that Obi-Wan took on the ill-fated Anakin Skywalker as his apprentice, believing “he could teach Anakin as well as Yoda taught him.” But apparently Yoda didn’t teach Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon did. This could have been rectified in the subsequent prequels, but George Lucas seemingly forgot his own story, and failed to make the established connection between Obi-Wan and Yoda, making their reflections in Empire retroactively seem like the senile ramblings of forgetful old men.

Sorry, am I getting sidetracked? No more than George Lucas did when writing The Phantom Menace, I’d say.

The story here is that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have been sent by the Galactic Republic to negotiate with the Trade Federation, who have blockaded the planet of Naboo as they prepare for a full-scale invasion of the planet. But the Trade Federation is under the influence of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Sidious, who commands the Trade Federation to kill the Jedi and begin their invasion of Naboo.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan narrowly escape the Federation’s battle droids, and return to Naboo to warn the planet of the impending invasion. They end up saving a local “Gungan” called Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who manages to sneak the Jedi into the capital city of the planet, where they rescue Queen Amidala, her handmaidens and her royal guard before the Federation’s battle droids completely occupy the city.

The groups’ ship is heavily damaged during the escape from Naboo, and would have been destroyed if not for the efforts of a little astrodroid named R2-D2. Unable to complete their journey to the capital planet of the Republic, Coruscant, the group make an emergency landing on the desert planet of Tatooine to find spare parts and repair their ship. Qui-Gon, Jar-Jar, R2 and Padmé (Natalie Portman) – one of the queen’s handmaidens – investigate the surrounding areas of the planet to find repairs, when they stumble across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).

Anakin and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves owned by the greedy Watto (voiced by Andy Sacombe), who has the parts Qui-Gon is looking for. But Qui-Gon senses there is more to Anakin than meets the eye, detecting an unheard of strength in the Force in the young boy. When Qui-Gon learns that Anakin is an expert ‘Podracer,’ he makes a wager with Watto. If Anakin can win an upcoming Podrace, Watto will not only grant him the repairs he needs, but also free Anakin, as Qui-Gon wishes to teach him the ways of the Jedi, believing Anakin to be the fabled ‘Chosen One’ of legend.

As the film goes on we delve deeper into the political aspects of the Republic, including the ascension of a certain Naboo senator named Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), as well as the Jedi council learning of the reemergence of the Sith after Qui-Gon Jinn encounters Darth Maul (Ray Park), Darth Sidious’s mysterious apprentice.

Admittedly, The Phantom Menace has more merits than it gets credit for. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor work well in the leading roles, some of the action scenes – such as the Podrace and the final confrontation with Darth Maul – are exhilarating, the musical score (composed by John Williams, naturally) is one of the best in the series, and even though everyone and their grandma may revile Jar-Jar Binks, the character was actually quite groundbreaking for visual effects. Not since Eddie Valiant butted heads with Roger Rabbit had an animated character worked so seamlessly with live-actors, and Jar-Jar helped open the door for CG characters like Gollum and, subsequently, the likes of Davy Jones, Thanos, and countless others. Not all of the visual effects of The Phantom Menace have held up well (other CG aliens, such as the Podracing ‘Dug’ Sebulba, look glaringly fake today), but the ones that do stand the test of time, do so surprisingly well.

Sadly, there are just too many issues holding The Phantom Menace back. Even though it may feel more like a proper Star Wars film than the subsequent entries in the prequel trilogy, it’s so overstuffed with needless, dare I say ‘stupid’ elements, that it still falls flat. Some atrocious writing and acting also don’t help things.

There’s no way around it, George Lucas is a brilliant filmmaker from a technical perspective, and definitely has one of the most influential imaginations in the medium, but the man can’t write dialogue. With the original trilogy, Lucas had other directors and/or actors bold enough to alter some of what he wrote in the script, and made it better. But here it seems Lucas must’ve been surrounded by yes men behind the cameras, and actors in front of it who had too much faith in the director to speak up.

I remember when I first saw The Phantom Menace in theaters at nine-years old on that May Day of 1999. Even at that young age – when The Phantom Menace was a good movie to me by the simple fact that it was Star Wars – some of the dialogue still seemed, for lack of a better word, “dumb.”

I distinctly remember on that day, when the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, believing to have killed Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan with poisonous gas, informs his battle droids that “they must be dead by now, destroy what’s left of them.” Even at nine-years old, that line was just bad. What, did the Viceroy want the droids to shoot the supposed corpses with a barrage of lasers or something? Surely there were many other, better ways to word what amounts to “take no chances.”

The movie is filled with other such goofy lines. “I’m a person and my name is Anakin!” is another standout for all the wrong reasons. It’s like George Lucas wrote the first draft, filled it with basic, placeholder dialogue, and then forgot to revise it and add more flavor and personality.

Another issue with the film is some of the acting is as stilted as Lucas’s writing. Sure, there are good actors here (Neeson, McGregor, McDiarmid), but Natalie Portman’s  portrayal of Padmé has nothing of note to speak of. And while I’m usually a bit easier on child actors for the obvious reason, it unfortunately has to be said that Jake Lloyd was just a bad actor. I feel guilty about saying that, knowing what we do of Lloyd in retrospect, but I’m not gonna lie. There can be legitimately good child actors (see Stranger Things), but Jake Lloyd certainly wasn’t among them, and you have to wonder what George Lucas was thinking when casting the series’ central character.

Perhaps the biggest sin committed by The Phantom Menace is its baffling pacing. There’s just way too many plots going on at any given time. Instead of stopping for a few moments to focus on one story, we continuously switch back and forth between various different character perspectives.

“This fight is so cool! Too bad it keeps getting interrupted every five seconds…”

This is especially egregious in the film’s final act, which sees Qui-Gon and Obi-Won dueling Darth Maul at the same time that Padmé is storming the Naboo palace at the same time that Anakin is inadvertently thrown into a space battle with the Trade Federation’s command ship at the same time that Jar-Jar is leading a Gungan army into war with the battle droids.

The epic duel of Jedi and Sith and the storming of the palace are attempting legitimate action and a hefty emotional weight, while Anakin and Jar-Jar’s bumbling adventures come across as more comedic. And the film switches between each segment at poorly-timed moments. Some fans argue that the finale of Return of the Jedi does something similar. But in Jedi, all the scenes in question share an emotional connection, they’re all dramatic. Here in The Phantom Menace, we’ll go from Darth Maul fatally stabbing Qui-Gon as Obi-Wan looks on in horror, to Jar-Jar tripping over himself and Anakin spinning during a dogfight because “That’s a neat trick.” What are we supposed to be feeling here?

Then of course we have two big questionable character decisions: giving Jar-Jar Binks far too much screen time, and giving Darth Maul far too little.

“Don’t do that again…or anything…ever.”

To be perfectly honest, I don’t innately hate the idea of Jar-Jar. As much as the fanboys would never admit to it, Star Wars is first and foremost a children’s franchise. Having a comical, bumbling sidekick character isn’t exactly out-of-place. The problem is that Jar-Jar is the kind of comic relief that talks down to his target audience. He’s annoying and loud and is involved with a few bathroom gags (now that actually is out-of-place in Star Wars). He was designed with the purpose of appealing to children, but under the belief that children need a loud, obnoxious character to be entertained. It seems strange coming from the same series that brought us the lovable likes of R2-D2 and Chewbacca.

As for Darth Maul, he’s arguably the most underutilized villain in cinema history. I mentioned how, ahead of release, Darth Maul was a particular point of interest. With his red and black tattooed face and horned scalp, Darth Maul certainly looked like a terrific villain. Maul was the right combination of menacing and cool to be a memorable foe, and different enough from Darth Vader to stand as his own character.

Too bad in the film he gets only a handful of minutes onscreen before being unceremoniously sliced in two. Sure, the “expanded universe” would later retcon Darth Maul’s death, shoehorning him back into the fold in the worst way imaginable (he’s gots robot legs now!). But that only cheapens the character further. Much like Boba Fett before him, it was an example of too little, too late. Sometimes, fans just have to accept that a character’s potential was wasted, and bringing them back through such cheap means is a bone not worth being thrown. The simple fact is Darth Maul should have been the Darth Vader of the prequel trilogy. Instead, he was just the villain of the week. Yeah, he looks cool, but that’s literally all he does.

Jar-Jar and Darth Maul’s misgivings are creative decisions I could potential separate from the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the creative choices that create blatant continuity errors with the original trilogy.

I already mentioned how Qui-Gon’s very existence creates a bit of a plot hole with Empire Strikes Back. But at least we got a good character (and Liam Neeson) out of that. Less forgivable is the ludicrous decision that Anakin Skywalker built C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels). Again, this was something that seemed like a stretch back when I was nine. Now that I’m thirty, it just seems all the more ridiculous. Isn’t Star Wars supposed to take place in a vast galaxy? Then why does it seem so incredibly small that it’s centered around such a small group of people who all just happen to know each other? I get that having C3-P0 and R2-D2 be the one consistency throughout the entire saga was George Lucas’s plan from the start. But surely, surely there were better ways to introduce C3-P0 into the fold than having Darth Vader himself be the one to have created him. It just makes the Star Wars galaxy feel so… small. Not to mention it creates the most massive plot hole in the entire series come Attack of the Clones.

Another point of contention with fans is the existence of Midichlorians. As The Phantom Menace quite needlessly tells us, Midichlorians are microscopic organisms that determine whether someone is or isn’t attuned to the Force. Much like Star Wars being a series primarily aimed at kids, another aspect of the series that’s hard for some fans to swallow is that it’s far more rooted in fantasy and fairy tales than it is science-fiction. Although Star Wars has science-fiction elements, this is also a series primarily about space wizards fighting each other with laser katanas.

Trying to give a logical explanation for the Force seems unnecessary, and robs the essence of the series of some of its mystique. It isn’t one of the bigger issues with The Phantom Menace, but Medichlorians are an example of one of the big issues of the prequel trilogy: over-explaining things that really don’t benefit the story or characters! The same goes for most of the political narratives going on in the sidelines. There’s just way too much of it, considering Star Wars was always an action-adventure series. How many people really wanted the fantasy action to pause for the sake of political exposition at every other turn? If I wanted to be bored with science fiction, I’d be watching Star Trek, not Star Wars.

Despite the many, many, many misgivings I have with The Phantom Menace, I do have to reiterate that it can be a fun movie, and unlike the other prequels, it at least feels like a Star Wars movie (just not a particularly good one). I admit that I myself still have a nostalgic soft spot for it. But for all the fun The Phantom Menace can provide, it’s riddled in far too many janky elements – in plot, pacing, writing and acting – and seems so gleefully ignorant and unwilling to maintain continuity with the original series, that it ultimately becomes a mediocre movie. It’s certainly not the vile, “childhood ruining” disasterpiece that fans made it out to be in 1999, but The Phantom Menace – despite some merit – still isn’t a very good Star Wars movie.

 

5

Frozen and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

200 Movie Reviews!

I have finally amassed 200 movie reviews!

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

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

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

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

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

Joker Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Terminator: Dark Fate Review

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

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

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

But it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5

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