Turning Red is a Pixar movie quite unlike any other that has come before it. The feature film debut for director Domee Shi (who previously directed the 2018 short “Bao”), Turning Red takes the emotional core of Pixar films, and combines it with a coming-of-age story about puberty, culture clash, and a love letter to the early 2000s. The end result at once feels like a personal story on Shi’s part, as well as Pixar’s funniest and weirdest film to date.
Uniquely set during 2002, Turning Red tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl living in Toronto, Canada. Mei is obsessed with the boy band 4Town, an obsession she shares with her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). But Mei is rarely able to see her friends anymore, as she helps her strict mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), in running the family temple. That is when she isn’t working hard to get straight As to keep her mother happy. The fact that Ming disapproves of Mei’s friends and musical interests makes things all the more difficult, to say nothing of Mei’s growing interest in boys.
Ming discovers that Mei has developed a crush on an older boy, leading to a particularly embarrassing situation for Mei. This proves too much for her to handle, and the next morning, Mei awakes to find she has transformed into a giant red panda! Calming her emotions transforms her back into her human self (now sporting red hair), but whenever Mei gets too excited, she transforms back into the red panda.
It turns out that Mei’s family has a spiritual connection to red pandas, and every female member of her family goes through the transformation when they reach a certain age. There is a ritual that can be performed to seal away the red panda spirit, but it can only be done during a Red Moon, the next of which is still a month away. In the meantime, Mei will have to try to keep her emotions in check if she doesn’t want to unleash the panda and cause a ruckus. But that’s much easier said than done when going through puberty and always trying to be perfect for an overbearing mother. To further complicate things, 4Town will be having a concert in Toronto a week before the ritual!
The plot may sound silly, but it’s in the best way possible. Turning Red has a lot of fun not just in the scenario of Mei’s transformation, but also in its setting. I think this is the first Pixar film to directly mention its time period (The Incredibles was vaguely set in the 1960s, while some others were in the non-specific present day of their release). And boy, does Turning Red love to flaunt its love of the early 2000s! Not only is its depiction of boy band culture equal parts homage and spoof, but Mei also carries a Tamagotchi, we get glimpses of VHS tapes and DVDs, and we even get to hear a snippet of The Cha Cha Slide by DJ Casper. Suffice to say Turning Red has a lot of fun reveling in its nostalgia for the time. It’s so 2002 that the only things missing are references to Playstation 2 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Something else you’ve probably deduced from the plot synopsis is that Mei’s transformation occurring the same time she’s hitting puberty is certainly no coincidence. In fact, the first time Mei transforms into the panda she hides from her parents, who mistakenly believe Mei has just had her first period. The film is wonderfully honest and unapologetic with such subjects. It’s as much about Mei’s body changing in a natural way as it is about her changing in a supernatural way. And it works so effortlessly you wonder why past children’s films have been so skittish to tackle such subjects (it should be noted that Turning Red never actually uses words such as “period” while still making the subject overt which, as Seinfeld taught us, makes things all the funnier).
It’s also fun to see a Pixar movie focus on a clash of cultures. Mei is fully respectful to her Chinese heritage and traditions, but her love of boy bands and the youth culture of Toronto baffles her mother, creating a bigger rift between the two.
I’ve heard some people say these elements “don’t feel like a Pixar movie.” But that’s exactly what I love about Turning Red. It feels so different from anything else Pixar has made while (crucially) still retaining the heart and emotion the studio’s storytelling is known for. If anything, the differences Turning Red makes to Pixar’s norms is the greatest testament to the quality of Pixar movies that we’ve seen in quite some time. Turning Red is proud to be a Pixar film, but it’s also rebellious and unafraid to do its own thing within the Pixar canon.
This is seen in the animation itself. Turning Red retains the top-notch computer animation of Pixar but fuses it with anime influences and additional hand-drawn effects to make it look unique among its Pixar peers. Pixar’s characters have never been more exaggerated or expressive than they are in Turning Red, which leads to some great visual comedy. The character designs themselves are simple, but fun and memorable. The whole movie just pops with color. It’s a constant visual delight.
Turning Red is the most fun and original Pixar movie in quite some time. Domee Shi seems to have infused the film with her own personal experiences and humor, which gives the film a unique tone and overall feel among Pixar features. This is, after all, the only Pixar film in which The Simpsons is referenced, and in which the characters say words like “crap.” Where it falls in the echelon of Pixar greats is beside the point, because Turning Red is so busy doing its own thing that it’s basically in its own, separate category.
I was gutted when Disney announced Turning Red would be the third Pixar film in a row to be skipping theaters and heading straight to Disney+. I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen. On the plus side, being on Disney’s streaming service will make repeat viewings that much easier. And this is the kind of movie you’ll want to watch over and over again.
Turning Red is sweet, emotional, hilarious (I’ve never laughed harder at a Pixar movie), sometimes surreal and always charming. It’s Pixar’s best film of the last few years. It’s so much fun.
Looks like I’m doing “My Month in Movies” again. I feel I watched enough movies in the first month of 2022 to warrant another one. And the movies mostly followed the specific theme of ‘fantasy’ – which I like to think is something of a speciality of mine – so it made sense. Even more specifically, I rewatched the entire Harry Potter series again (Fantastic Beasts and all), partly because Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (what a title) comes out in a couple of months, and partly because I started the year watching that retrospective special on the Harry Potter movies’ twentieth anniversary on HBO Max, so I was feeling nostalgic for them. I’m glad I did, because I feel it rekindled my interest in the series, and even gave me new appreciation for it. I would like to review all of the Harry Potter movies someday, and perhaps sooner still make a ranking of them. But I have so many backlogged things I want to write as it is, so for now, they can be a part of this My Month in Movies.
Because ‘My Month in Movies’ has gotten ridiculously long in the past, I’m going to try and keep things as short and simple as possible. And due to the aforementioned backlog of reviews and other things, I don’t plan on doing another My Month in Movies for February or March. But then again, I only decided to write this one for January after I watched the entire Harry Potter series, so who knows. I’ll write them when I write them, I guess.
Enough intros and wasting time. Here are the eighteen movies I watched in January of 2022, in chronological order of when I watched them. Movies with asterisks next to them are ones I watched for the very first time.
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts*
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber ofSecrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald
Bram Stoker’s Dracula*
Wild Wild West*
The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild*
So yeah, ‘fantasy’ was definitely the name of the game this month. There are a couple of horror movies in there, but both would still ultimately fall under fantasy in one way or another (many people consider fantasy, horror and science fiction to be like different branches of the same tree. But I’d argue that fantasy is the tree itself, considering it supersedes the other two in terms of concept whenever it’s joined together with them. For example, when science-fiction dabbles into fantasy, it becomes science-fantasy. But when fantasy dabbles in science fiction, it’s still fantasy). You could even argue that Wild Wild West and The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild could be considered variations of fantasy.
My month/year in movies began with Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts. You could argue it isn’t actually a movie, but it’s feature length and certainly entertaining, so I’m counting it here. A lovely look back on twenty years of Harry Potter movies. I was actually surprised how emotional I got during it. I’ve taken some jabs at Harry Potter here and there in the past, namely because people often (and strangely) compared it to The Lord of the Rings back in the day. And well, that was always a losing battle. But deep down I’ve always loved Harry Potter, despite some narrative shortcomings. And this 20 year retrospective reminded me of why I love it. It was great that the Harry Potter books got kids reading again (there have been other popular book series for children and young adults since, none of which are as indelible). And then you have the movies giving a generation of audiences a gateway to imagination and magic (figurative and literal, in this case).
I definitely have to appreciate the magic and world-building of the Harry Potter series, which feels all the more unique in retrospect now that movies aren’t allowed to have magic anymore (if Harry Potter took place in the MCU, every time someone casted a spell they’d have to stop and explain how it “wasn’t really magic, but a really advanced science”). The series is sometimes too loose with its rules, with magic seemingly changing for plot convenience. But for the most part, it’s well done and imaginative. And again, I’ll take it over the alternative of over-explaining fantasy elements or being embarrassed by them (again, I’m looking at you, MCU).
Something the 20th anniversary special really brought to my attention is how the Harry Potter series appropriately matures as it goes on. It’s maybe the only movie series in which you see its main stars grow up throughout it. Obviously I was aware of that, but I never really gave it much thought until watching the special. The fact that they were able to adapt all seven books (into eight movies) with the same cast over the course of a decade is quite the unique achievement.
The first two Harry Potter features, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, feel more like kids’ movies than the others. Both were directed by Chris Columbus (he did Home Alone, among others), whose work with the series I feel is under appreciated. Some applaud the first two movies in the series as being the most faithful to the books, while others feel the series hadn’t yet found its voice, and that they’re too long given they’re targeted at a younger audience. I think both movies are pretty great, even if it’s obvious the three leads hadn’t quite meshed into the roles yet (which is forgivable, given their ages at the time). They’re great fantasy-adventure movies for kids that are equally entertaining for adults. I think Chris Columbus set a great tone for the start of the series. And we can’t forget the score by John Williams! Because having done Star Wars and Spielberg’s filmography wasn’t enough, John Williams also gave us the music to Harry Potter as well. What a legend.
The third film in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, is often regarded as the best of the lot, and rightfully so. Azkaban isn’t simply a great Harry Potter movie or a great fantasy movie. It’s a great movie, period. It’s more grown up than its two predecessors, but still retains their more playful spirit (something some of the sequels lack). It also has perhaps the most self-contained story, and certainly the most character-driven one. It ended up being the only Harry Potter film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and the last one to feature music by John Williams.
Goblet of Fire is the first notable dip in the series, but it certainly isn’t bad. Admittedly, some of that dip is simply because Azkaban was so good. But it also feels like most of Goblet’s story is just padding to get to the ending, when the evil Lord Voldemort is resurrected. It’s hard to explain, but the ending of the film feels like the start of a new series (which I guess makes sense, since Voldemort’s resurrection marks the biggest tonal and narrative shift in the series). It doesn’t really feel like an ending to the story of the rest of the movie. And I always found it a bit weird how, after the elaborate plots Voldemort attempted to be resurrected in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, he just has one of his minions perform a dark ritual to successfully be brought back. Seems like he could have saved himself some trouble by jumping straight into that. Goblet was the only Harry Potter film directed by Mike Newell before David Yates took over the rest of the series (which continues to this day with the Fantastic Beasts movies).
Order of the Phoenix is probably the Harry Potter movie I’ve seen the most times (except maybe Sorcerer’s Stone), although I don’t really know why. It’s a good movie, but I think it only occasionally reaches the same heights as the first three. I guess, with Voldemort back, the story had to change. I just don’t think the change is always for the better (perhaps it’s no coincidence that I and many others hold Azkaban in such high regard and it also happens to be the most Voldemort-free entry?). It’s still a fun movie, and gives us the franchise’s most gloriously hatable character in the form of Dolores Umbridge. With David Yates’ grip on the series starting here, Phoenix set the tone for the rest of the films to follow.
Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate story in the series. I never read the book for this one, which is sometimes considered the best book in the series. The movie seems to have a rockier reputation, and again, I tend to agree. Before my current run-through of the Harry Potter movies, I had only seen Half-Blood Prince once, back when it was in theaters. At the time, I would have said it was my least favorite Harry Potter movie, but now it’s a toss-up between it and Goblet of Fire (unless we count the Fantastic Beasts movies, in which case we all know The Crimes of Grindlewald takes the dubious crown with ease). Like Goblet of Fire, it’s not a bad movie, it just feels like something is missing. There are some great, key moments for the franchise here. But on the whole, it just isn’t as memorable as some of the other movies in the series. I also never really bought into the Hermione/Ron romance (something which J.K. Rowling herself regrets), and that enters the forefront here. Said romance also seems oddly placed given the severity of everything else going on (or maybe it’s just because I’m a predominantly asexual individual so teen romance is lost on me). Again, not a bad movie, but the series can do better.
Somewhat annoyingly, Harry Potter started that trend we saw in the early 2010s of a franchise finale being split into two movies with Deathly Hallows (technically, The Hobbit started the trend when it was set to be split in two a while beforehand, despite being released after both Deathly Hallows. Though The Hobbit was ultimately spread too thin with three movies). In all fairness, at least Harry Potter was a big enough franchise that splitting its finale felt warranted.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 set the stage for a big, epic finale. And for the most part, it succeeds. I think my two big issues with Deathly Hallows are that some of the notable character deaths happen off-screen (apparently these same deaths happened off-page in the book, so this is on Rowling), and that I think the whole storyline with Voldemort’s Horcruxes (cursed objects that contain pieces of his soul thus leaving him immortal) needed to be a little more spread out. The first Horcrux is taken care of all the way back in Chamber of Secrets, which makes sense and gives that story even more importance. But then when Harry and Dumbledore find another Horcrux in Half-Blood Prince, it needlessly turns out to be a fake, so a good deal of Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is dealing with that same Horcrux. It seems like the one Harry and Dumbledore found in Half-Blood Prince should have just been the real thing and destroyed then and there so the story could move on to the rest of the Horcruxes.
Anyway, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a highly entertaining movie that fittingly feels like a big deal, even when watching it today. But I think that Part 2 is even better.
Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is one of the best franchise closers in movie history. The sense of drama and urgency feels well earned, the emotion is strong, and it all boils down to an appropriately epic finale. And it has the best music in the series since John Williams left it behind. This is another great movie. Not nearly as standalone as Azkaban, nor does it have that film’s hard to describe ‘dreamlike’ quality. But because it’s such a satisfying end to the series, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 might be my second favorite Harry Potter movie (guess we’ll see when I finally decide to rank the series). I have a lingering complaint from Part 1 with the continuing trend of off-screen character deaths (for some of them I understand it. Harry can’t be present for every character death. But some of the more important characters’ deaths make it feel like Rowling started killing them off just to do it, since they happen off-screen). Though my complaint that’s unique to Part 2 is that – and I admit this may seem weird – there’s not a whole lot that happens after the final battle and before the epilogue. Basically, I think there needed to be more ending. Not necessarily a better ending, since I feel the ending is fine. Just more of it.
People love to joke that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has multiple endings. But I never took issue with any of them. They all gave an appropriate sense of finality to one of cinema’s great franchises. And I think Harry Potter could have done something similar. I would have liked to have seen more of the characters in detail after the final battle and before the epilogue. This is a series that earned the “never-ending endings” treatment. So it’s a shame it doesn’t get it. Otherwise, a great movie, and a prime example of how to close out a movie series.
Now we move on to the Fantastic Beasts series, a prequel/spinoff of Harry Potter exclusive to the world of movies (okay, there was a book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but from what I gather it was more like a guide of fictional animals within the Harry Potter universe, as opposed to the story we see in the movie series). Prequels released after a beloved franchise has wrapped up don’t exactly have the best track record. And well, Fantastic Beasts hasn’t exactly done a great job at bucking that trend.
Okay, so the first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is okay. It doesn’t do anything really great, but it’s fun and introduces us to some entertaining new characters like Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the Muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the first non-magic main character in the series (something that proves to be a lot of fun) as well as the first American actor/main character in the franchise.
Fantastic Beasts is a solidly enjoyable movie that is at once nostalgic for the Harry Potter of yesteryear, while also showing audiences different aspects of that world. And in a move I like, it introduces us to some creatures in the Wizarding World that are actually cute! One of my ongoing issues with Harry Potter was how ugly all the creatures of its world were, so it was nice that Fantastic Beasts showed us some cute ones. Fantastic Beasts is nothing special, but it’s a fun movie.
The same can’t be said about the sequel, the awkwardly-titled Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. This movie is such a mess that it (as well as the whole Johnny Depp controversy) derailed the series for a good few years. Although it’s annoying that this sequel resurrects a character who seemingly died in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, it otherwise starts out alright. But things quickly go off the rails as the movie devolves into an undying barrage of exposition, which leaves the second half of the film feeling more like the appendices of a book than an actual movie. We also can’t forget the introduction of a character who seems destined to be important to the series going forward, only for the movie to kill them off before everything is said and done. One of the main characters ends up siding with the villain in the most random heel turn ever. And the movie ends on a cliffhanger that is also one of the most annoying retcons to an established story I can recall (I suppose it is possible this can be undone in the upcoming installments, but we’ll see). Some even argue that the series entered into the “more serious” territory too soon with the second entry, considering there are still three more to go.
The Crimes of Grindlewald has some entertainment value, and it’s fun that we finally get to see Nicolas Flamel (the titular sorcerer/philosopher behind the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone). But boy, does it lose its way by the end. Here’s hoping that The Secrets of Dumbledore gets the series back on track.
As an added bonus, I also watched all four episodes of that game show Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses that aired in December of 2021, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren (I guess because she was just about the only notable English actor not to appear in the Harry Potter movies). I was surprised to hear the game show didn’t have too fond of a reception, as I found it to be pretty fun (though I did have some issues with the structure of the contest). I don’t know if a second season is planned, but I hope it happens.
And now we finally move on from Harry Potter.
Next up was the BFG, the 2016 Steven Spielberg movie based on the Road Dahl book, about a little girl who befriends a Big Friendly Giant (BFG). I intended to see this in theaters back in the day, but never got around to it. Apparently I’m not the only one, because the film was a box office bomb. That’s a shame, because the movie was actually pretty good. It’s certainly not among Spielberg’s best films or anything, and it takes a while to get going, but it ultimately charmed me. Considering this was Spielberg’s first movie to be released by Disney, you would think that combination would have put more butts in the seats. Alas, fairy tales such as this just don’t sell unless they’re made directly by Disney Animation. The BFG may not be a Spielberg or Disney great, but it’s a good family movie that deserves a little more attention.
Now we take a total 180 with Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the 1996 film Jack… and also The Godfather (I’ve been waiting to use that for a while). This is the Dracula movie where Gary Oldman plays the iconic vampire. And the one where Dracula has the butt/boob shaped hair. What? He does!
Anyway, the film is considered one of the more faithful adaptations of Dracula, hence Bram Stoker’s name in the title. Some people love this movie, others less so. I think it’s worth a watch for fans of Dracula and horror, and the film looks good. But if I’m going to be honest, some scenes are kind of unintentionally hilarious. And well, even the film’s defenders can’t deny that Keanu Reeve’s English accent makes Dick Van Dyke seem like a full-blooded Englishman.
One thing’s for sure, the theme music to Bram Stoker’s Dracula is amazing! So menacing and foreboding. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the theme music. It’s so effective as villainous music that many other works have used it, ranging from an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars to the original teaser for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. And though I can’t confirm it, I think Super Mario Galaxy’s rendition of Super Mario Bros. 3’s Airship theme was inspired by the theme of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Damn, this music is good!
Speaking of good music, my next movie was Hook. Oh boy, does the soundtrack to Hook kick ass!
For those unfamiliar, Hook is a 1991 Steven Spielberg movie that has a rather amazing premise: What if Peter Pan grew up?
The film stars the late, great Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan (perfect casting there), who has forgotten his past and now goes by Peter Banning. But when Captain Hook (memorably portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter’s children, Peter has to rediscover who he really is to take down his old foe and rescue his kids.
There seem to be two different opinions when it comes to Hook: There’s the more critical crowd who consider it one of Spielberg’s weakest movies (a sentiment shared by Spielberg himself), and those who grew up watching it on VHS who adore it. As is often the case with two such extreme opposing viewpoints, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think Hook is a better movie than it gets credit for, but no doubt it takes more than one serious dip once Peter makes his way back to Neverland. And even the film’s aforementioned amazing premise of a grown up Peter Pan gets a little squandered in the latter half as it devolves into a simple retelling of Peter Pan.
But the one thing that can’t be denied is that the soundtrack is phenomenal! It’s a Spielberg movie, which of course means John Williams was the composer. With John Williams, you expect good music, but the soundtrack to Hook goes above and beyond the call of duty. It’s up there with Star Wars and Jurassic Park as one of John Williams’ best scores. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s so good!
Importantly, the music to Hook played a roll in inspiring the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, AKA the best video game soundtrack. For that alone we should be eternally grateful.
Going back to horror with It Follows from 2014. Whereas Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a horror film with a great premise and so-so execution, It Follows has a concept that sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud or write it out, but the end result is actually very effective.
It Follows is a horror film about an unnamed entity that – true to the title – follows its prey until It catches up to them and kills them. But the premise is a bit more interesting because of the rules of how the entity, or “It” works.
“It” only stalks one person at any given time, and whoever is the current victim of “It” can pass “It” on to someone else by (and here’s where it may sound silly) having sex with them. But should “It” catch up to its current victim and kill them, it will go back to its previous target and keep going down the line. “It” has no definitive form, instead taking on the appearance of different people, and is only visible to its current and previous targets. But its victims have some advantages against “It.” Notably, “It” is incredibly slow, only capable of moving at waking speed. So even though “It” is aware of the location of its current target at all times, it can be outran in individual moments. “It” also is only an unstoppable killing machine if it catches its victim, otherwise it still has trouble opening locked doors or breaking through windows. Finally, even though it disguises itself as other people, because it has the singular goal of killing its current target and can only move at one speed, it’s pretty easy to pick out from a crowd.
Again, it all sounds a bit wonky when you explain it, but that makes it all the more impressive that the film manages to pull off the concept into a genuinely chilling horror film.
Next up was Labryinth, directed by Jim Henson and executive produced by George Lucas. This is a fun movie that’s often lumped together with Henson’s previous film The Dark Crystal, due to both films being fantasy worlds filled with crazy creatures brought to life by Henson’s signature puppets. In the past, I would have said Labyrinth was the better of the two movies since its smaller scope was more attainable with what Henson had to work with, though the excellent 2019 Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has somewhat retroactively made the mythology of the original Dark Crystal film feel stronger (then Netflix, in their “infinite wisdom” decided to cancel Age of Resistance after one season). So it’s hard to say which of the two movies I prefer, but like the original Dark Crystal, Labyrinth is a good and fun movie that I still think could have been done better, given the talent involved.
The movie of course features two prominent human actors, which differentiates it from the exclusively-puppet Dark Crystal. Jennifer Connelly portrays Sarah Williams, a teenager who traverses the titular labyrinth to save her little brother from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie).
As always with Jim Henson films, the movie is a technical marvel with how they brought everything to life, and for that alone is worth watching. But I do think Labyrinth is one of those fantasy films that feels like its concept could have been greater in execution. Imagine a Jim Henson movie with a story that could match the technical craftsmanship and artistry of it? That would be amazing! Though I guess we did get that with Age of Resistance, just in the form of a series instead of a movie (shame Netflix didn’t give it a proper chance).
Next in line was Wild Wild West, that western/steampunk movie starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline from 1999 that you probably only know about because the theme song outlived the movie. This is a bad, dumb movie. But the kind of bad, dumb movie I can at least get a kick out of. The film at least has some inventiveness with its steampunk creations. Again, it’s dumb. But whatever.
Finally, I watched the newest Ice Age film, The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild, which was released on Disney+ at the end of the month. I admit I still haven’t seen the fourth or fifth Ice Age movies in their entirety yet, but the first three were adequately entertaining. Nothing special, like Pixar. But nothing snarky and cynical, like Dreamworks. Also, I just realized I typed “the fourth and fifth Ice Age movies.” Why are there so many of them?!
The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is the first Ice Age film since Disney bought 20th Century Fox and dissolved Blue Sky Studios (the animation studio behind the Ice Age films). So the animation was outsourced here, and boy does it show! This movie looks more like the kind of straight-to-DVD CG you would see in the early 2000s, not the latest installment of a multi-billion dollar (really) movie franchise. And aside from Simon Pegg returning as Buck Wild himself, all of the original cast has been replaced, and you can hear the difference right away. It also doesn’t have much in the way of story (but then again, none of the Ice Age sequels did). Perhaps worst of all, despite being named after Buck Wild – who was introduced in the third Ice Age movie and was probably my favorite character in the series – the film seems to focus more of its time on returning Ice Age characters Crash and Eddie. So why even make a spinoff movie about Buck Wild if it isn’t even really about him?
Also mysteriously missing is Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel, whose side antics to get/store an acorn were often more entertaining than the main stories of the Ice Age features. Apparently there was some legal trouble involving that character, and Disney couldn’t get ahold of him during the Fox acquisition or something. How weird is that?
One good thing I can say about The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is that Simon Pegg’s voice acting is great. He’s one of the few mainstream actors who is willing to make his voice unrecognizable when doing voice over work (Benedict Cumberbatch is the other one that immediately comes to mind). Lest we forget Simon Pegg was Unkar Plutt (the “One Quarter Portion Guy”) from The Force Awakens and the SkekSis Chamberlain in the aforementioned Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
I do have to ask, why is the movie called The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild? After twenty years and six movies they suddenly decide to add a “the” to the franchise title?
Let’s wrap this up with the usual awards. Though because I’ve already rambled way more than I intended to when I started writing this, let’s keep things short.
Best Movie I Watched All Month: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
I suppose the fact that I watched every Harry Potter film this past month and am naming Prisoner of Azkaban as the best movie I watched this past month, I just gave away the ending of my eventual Harry Potter movie ranking. Oh well.
While a few of the Harry Potter movies are great, Prisoner of Azkaban is the one I’ve always thought was a great film full-stop. Harry Potter fan or not.
Azkaban is more mature than the first two installments, but still retains their sense of magic and wonder (something the later Harry Potter stories somewhat lost, as they focused more on how evil Voldemort is than they did the magic of the world of these stories). It’s the entry that best focuses on Harry, Hermione and (to a lesser extent) Ron develop as characters. It also gives us a kind of standalone story that can be appreciated on its own merits outside of the overall series more so than the other entries. And it introduces us to at least two of the best characters in the series in the forms of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). It’s also uniquely the only Harry Potter story in which the main villain isn’t Voldemort, but one of his minions, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), a baddie who sadly seems largely forgotten about in later installments.
Prisoner of Azkaban is also the most visually captivating Potter movie, with lots of saturated lighting in the daytime sequences, and an eerie fogginess at night. It reminds me of a Team Ico game in a way. Azkaban feels more subdued than past and future Harry Potter movies visually, but somehow that brings out the magic of the series all the more. The whole movie has a kind of dreamlike quality about it. I can’t really explain it.
Sure, the time travel aspect is a little wonky, but it’s one of those “small price to pay” kind of things with how great of a movie Prisoner of Azkaban is on the whole. This is to Harry Potter what Spider-Man 2 is to Marvel in that it’s a great movie even without taking the franchise into consideration. It’s the movie lover’s Harry Potter.
But let’s save some of the gushing for when I actually review and/or rank the Harry Potter movies.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild
This was actually a toss-up between Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (which I initially thought was guaranteed this “honor”), Wild Wild West and The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild (or TIAAOBW, for short). Grindlewald almost singlehandedly halted the Harry Potter spinoff franchise, but I suppose it has some merit, and with three sequels still to come, the series may be able to salvage itself. Wild Wild West is a bad movie, but again, it’s dumb fun. It’s hard to pick on something too much when it knows exactly how dumb it is.
But in the case of The Ice Age Adv… you know, let’s just call it Buck Wild.
In the case of Buck Wild, it felt like it took a series that has already overstayed its welcome, and stripped it of the few things fans of the series had left to enjoy (animation quality, the voice acting, Scrat, etc.). Outside of Simon Pegg’s vocal work, this is bottom of the barrel, cash-grab animation. If you have a Disney+ subscription, watch any of the countless infinitely better animated offerings on the service instead.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time this Month: Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts
“Mrs. Puff…I think I cheated.”
Does this count as a movie? A documentary? I never know with these kinds of specials. So my claiming that Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is the best movie I watched for the first time this month may be a bit dubious. But whatever, I greatly enjoyed it.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, I think this is a must watch. Even if you’re not totally engrossed in the franchise but have an interest in pop culture phenomenons, I also think this is a must watch. It’s a detailed look back at one of cinema’s (and literature’s) most successful franchises, gives insight into the series and the making of it. And thankfully, the special’s feature length runtime means it gives plenty of attention to each individual installment in the series.
It’s a very insightful, fun special. I’m not even sorry that I’m cheating by selecting it.
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Hook
Hook could have, and should have, been a better movie than it is. But it’s still better than its critics say. It’s a good time that may lose its magic as it goes, but it’s still a fun movie.
Most importantly, the music is sublime!
That’s all folks!
What did I say at the beginning of this? “I’m going to try to keep this as short and simple as possible?” Well, mission failed there!
I don’t know why these keep ending up being so long. I have so many other things to write, I need to start focusing on those instead. I still haven’t reviewed Luca, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Ron’s Gone Wrong or Encanto. And let’s not even get into all the video games I’ve been meaning to review…
So, let’s see this as the last My Month in Movies for a while. I enjoy writing these, but they’re taking away too much of my writing time that I should be spending elsewhere. So until I catch up a little bit on all of those other things, let’s put My Month in Movies on hold for a while.
At any rate, I hope you had some fun reading all this. I also hope you found any of it even the slightest bit interesting. And most importantly, I hope you’re having a good and happy 2022 so far.
Before we get into anything else: Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Festivus! Happy Life Day! Happy Rusev Day! Happy/Merry everybody!
Whatever holiday(s) you celebrate, I hope you have a great one filled with happiness, joy, and lots of good food!
Happy holidays to all!
With all the holiday greetings and well wishes out of the way, Christmas Day also marks the anniversary of when I launched Wizard Dojo (well, when I first posted content to it, which is what I would say actually constitutes the launch of something). It’s a double celebration here at the Dojo!
Being both Christmas Day and the anniversary of this site, it’s time once again for the annual Wizard Dojo Christmas Special! Because Wizard Dojo is actually just one long, elaborate Christmas movie in disguise… like Die Hard!
So without further ado, let’s get on with this Christmas Special!
Chapter 1: Ranking the Spider-Man Films
There have been no less than nine theatrically released Spider-Man films ever since Spidey’s first big screen outing back in 2002. I figured now is as good of a time as any to rank all of the Spider-Man features. After all, Spider-Man is kind of like Christmas when you think about it: Spidey wears a red suit, like Santa Claus. The way he swings around New York is kind of/sort of like how Santa flies around on his sleigh on Christmas Eve. And the way Peter Parker builds his web shooters is kind of like how Santa’s elves build the toys…
Okay, it’s not like Christmas at all (unlike Die Hard). But the newest Spider-Man movie, No Way Home, came out recently, and the festive atmosphere of Christmas has me feeling celebratory, so why not?
Oh, and keep in mind that I’m just counting the Spider-Man movies themselves here, and not the Avengers movies in which Spider-Man appears, or Spider-Man adjacent movies like Venom.
With that out of the way, here’s my ranking of the Spider-Man movies!
9: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
That “Amazing” in the title is more than a little ironic, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is regularly cited as the weakest Spider-Man movie (as it is here). It’s doubly ironic in that the original ‘Spider-Man 2’ was already amazing.
The second and ultimately final iteration of the Andrew Garfield-starring Spider-Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 perhaps has more merit than it gets credit for (it’s certainly better than some other Marvel movies, like Eternals or the later X-Men films). But it does ultimately succumb to its desire of wanting to be everything.
Not satisfied with simply being a Spider-Man sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wanted to kickstart its own Cinematic Universe to compete with what Marvel had accomplished with the MCU (remember that Spidey was still strictly under Sony’s control at this time). So what we get is a movie that’s trying to tell its own story while simultaneously setting up an entire series of sequels all at once.
You thought Spider-Man 3 was overstuffed with three villains? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not only packs on the villains, but also hints at others, tries setting up potential sequels and spinoffs for them (there were plans for a Sinister Six movie, among others), and features a lingering mystery involving the fate of Peter Parker’s parents (which remains unsolved). All this while still trying to give Peter Parker a meaningful character arc involving his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).
It’s just too much, and the film crumbles under all that weight. Sony got greedy and sacrificed their Spider-Man sequel just to play catch up with Marvel. But Marvel took its time setting up its shared universe of characters, they started with standalone movies (something I wish they’d go back to) before they brought their characters together. By fast-tracking their planned Cinematic Universe, Sony killed it before it even began. It’s a shame, because the Amazing Spider-Man series had potential.
At the very least, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gave us a Russian Paul Giamatti inside of a robotic rhinoceros. That’s something to be grateful for.
8: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a technically well-made movie. So why do I rank it so low on this list? Because its technical polish doesn’t translate to its creativity. The Amazing Spider-Man served as a good launching pad for a reboot to the series (though we know how it ultimately ended up. See above), but it does so by simply going through the motions.
Released ten years after the original Spider-Man (which was Spider-Man’s origin story), and five years after Spider-Man 3 (which heavily focused on part of Spider-Man’s origin story due to an annoying retcon). Audiences just didn’t want to sit through Spider-Man’s origin story again. Give Uncle Ben a break, will ya?
This is the film that introduced us to Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, and to be fair, he’s great in the role (he looks more the part than Tobey Maguire and is less annoying than Tom Holland’s Peter Parker). And it’s his performance, and his chemistry with Emma Stone, that most separates this film from what came before it (that, and I suppose the fact that its villain is a lizard-man). But the film’s darker and more gritty tone haven’t aged as well as the more colorful Sam Raimi-directed films. The fact that Spider-Man was rebooted yet again (and added into the biggest movie franchise in history in the process) five years later, leaving its lingering plot threads to drift in limbo, also hasn’t helped The Amazing Spider-Man stand the test of time.
It’s a shame, because I actually really liked The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. Perhaps if it hadn’t felt the need to show us Spider-Man’s origin story in detail after the 2002 film already did it so well, it may have been able to build more of an identity of its own.
7: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
It pains me to rank one of the Sam Raimi films this low on the list. But Spider-Man 3 was the first instance of the series feeling the need to include as many villains as humanly possible at the expense of storytelling coherence. Spider-Man 3 was such a downgrade in quality that it resulted in the end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, and “Spider-Man 4” never saw the light of day.
To be fair, it was Sony who forced Raimi’s hand to include Venom into the movie, resulting in one villain too many. Harry Osborne had already been set up to take over his father’s mantle of the Green Goblin in Spider-Man 2, and Raimi wanted the Sandman, as he liked the idea of a small-time crook being turned into the main villain, as well as believing he’d be impressive visually. But Sony wanted Venom, so we got him too.
On the subject of fairness, Raimi’s hands weren’t entirely clean, either. It was his decision that Sandman should be revealed as Uncle Ben’s real killer, even though that whole story seemed nicely wrapped up in the first movie. And you know you’re in trouble whenever a movie retcons something like that (“that guy wasn’t the real killer, thisguy is!”). Though once again, in the spirit of fairness, at least Raimi only did so because he wanted the film to be themed around forgiveness. I just wish he’d had found a better means to do so.
Suffice to say, the film is a bit cluttered. It has too many elements in too many places. If even just one of them had been cut (let’s just say, oh I don’t know, Venom, for instance), perhaps Spider-Man 3 could have found a better focus and been a better movie.
There was once a time when I’d tell you that Spider-Man 3 was one of my most hated movies. Though a few years ago, when I watched it again for the first time since it was in theaters, I realized it isn’t that bad. I mean, Spider-Man 3 can’t hold a candle to its two predecessors, and I think the massive downgrade in quality from Spider-Man 2 may have been why I was extra critical of it initially. But it still has its good points.
Though it doesn’t resonate nearly as strongly as the first two films, Spider-Man 3 still has something of a beating heart to it. Sam Raimi and company still tried to give the film meaning. As messy as the end result may have been, that’s still something more than I can say about most superhero movies that have been released since. Spider-Man 3 actually had something to it (albeit it often got lost in the shuffle) and wasn’t just about hyping the next string of movies in the Marvel pipeline.
A bit of a mess. But its own mess.
6: Spider-Man: Far From Home(2019)
Spider-Man: Far From Home was the second Spider-Man film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the third Spider-Man film released in as many years (following its predecessor in 2017 and the animated Into the Spider-Verse in 2018). You would think Far From Home would have suffered a bit from Spider-Fatigue, but for the most part, it’s still a solid entry in the series. It featured a decently fun villain in Mysterio, took the action out of New York and into various locations in Europe, and had some good action scenes. Far From Home was fun, if maybe not groundbreaking. In other words, it sure was an MCU feature.
Still, there are some things holding Far From Home back from reaching the same heights as other Spider-Man films. Notably, with the film being the first MCU feature released after Avengers: Endgame, you would think that Far from Home would respectfully acknowledge the events of Infinity War and Endgame, given the gravity of – oh, I don’t know – Thanos wiping out half of all life in the universe for five years before the Avengers travelled through time to bring everyone back! But you’d be wrong.
Instead, Far From Home plays up the whole thing as one big punchline. Aunt May laughs off the fact that while she disappeared from existence for five years, someone else was living in her apartment. A kid in Peter’s school also jokes that his younger brother became his older brother during the time he was snapped away by Thanos. Maybe a few jokes about it would be fine, but Far From Home seems to exclusively reference the drama of Endgame as a joke. Considering Endgame was the culmination of everything in the MCU up to that point, and Far From Home was the first MCU film released afterwards, its utter disregard towards Endgame basically devalues the entire MCU franchise. It’s like a big middle finger to anyone who invested in the series. And sadly, this element of writing off the past seems to have become a common trait in the MCU since.
At least the sacrifice of Tony Stark is made important! Because of course it is. Tony Stark was all over Spider-Man: Homecoming, just to hit home the fact that Spider-Man was in the MCU now. So Far From Home is sure to let everyone know how impactful the loss of Tony Stark was, to the point that Peter Parker never even brings up Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben wasn’t Tony Stark, why should he be remembered? But Spidey still manages to snag plenty of new gadgets from Stark Industries in Far From Home. Because Tony Stark!
Okay, I won’t keep going on. Simply put, the film’s overemphasis on pointing out that it takes place in the MCU at the expense of Spider-Man’s own mythology, while simultaneously treating the MCU’s history as a joke, is a bit of a problem. But if you can dig past that, Spider-Man: Far From Home does deliver an entertaining movie.
5: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Five years after the Andrew Garfield era started (and only three years after The Amazing Spider-Man 2), the Spider-Man franchise was rebooted yet again! This time, Sony and Marvel worked out their differences (they would have more later, and work them out again), meaning that Spider-Man could now join the MCU! Sony’s planned Spider-Man universe didn’t pan out, so I guess it’s a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The good news is that Marvel knew no one wanted to see Spider-Man’s origin story again, so they skipped it entirely, and introduced this newest version of Spider-Man in a previous film (Captain America: Civil War) for good measure. So for once, we could just get right into things.
The bad news is that Marvel and Sony were way too excited to let people know that Spider-Man was now in the MCU, with Tony Stark being all over Homecoming (I can’t remember a single advertisement that didn’t put Iron Man front and center). And sadly, Marvel and Sony seemed to think that “skipping” Spider-Man’s origin story meant ignoring it outright. Uncle Ben’s death is still (supposedly) a pinnacle moment in the life of the MCU’s Peter Parker, but you’d never know it from watching Homecoming. Who has time to remember a lost loved one when Tony Stark’s in town?! Yahoo! MCU!
Okay, I’m sorry. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good movie. But I do think sacrificing Spider-Man’s own mythology for the sake of the MCU is a big problem in the Tom Holland-era Spider-Man films, and not one that grew bigger over time. It was there right out the gate with Homecoming. Still, I guess being overly enthusiastic about being in the MCU is better than an MCU movie making fun of the MCU (like Far From Home).
Other than the film’s obsession with reminding audiences that Spider-Man is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Homecoming has a lot to love about it. While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker can be pretty annoying at times, the actor definitely looks the part, and makes for a fun Spider-Man. The action scenes are, once again, very exciting. And perhaps most notably, Spider-Man: Homecoming gives us one of the few MCU villains who could be described as ‘interesting.’
Adrian Toomes, AKA ‘The Vulture,’ wonderfully portrayed by Michael Keaton, seemed to have taken inspiration from the Raimi-era villains. A hardworking man who (rightfully) has a grudge after his salvage company are sent out of business by the government and (*sigh*) Tony Stark. Michael Keaton plays Toomes as a likable, blue-collar man just trying to set things right the only way he feels he can. That’s the kind of villain the MCU could certainly use more of. I’m getting pretty tired of evil rich guys who have the same powers as the hero…
Spider-Man: Homecoming may not be perfect, but it remains one of the MCU’s most fun and lighthearted installments. And everyone loves Michael Keaton.
4: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Okay, there may be a recency bias here seeing as this movie was just released. Or it could even be a nostalgic bias, seeing as this film brings back so many faces from Spidey’s cinematic past. Whatever the case may be, I’m ranking No Way Home above Homecoming for the time being. I guess we’ll see how I feel they compare later.
The good: It’s magic just to see Alfred Molina Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe Green Goblin again. Lots of great action scenes. A few good emotional bits. A truckload of fanservice for the MCU, the Amazing Spider-Man films and the Sam Raimi trilogy.
The bad: The film makes too many cynical jokes at the expense of past Spider-Man films. Dr. Strange fills the role of “overbearing Avengers presence” left over by Tony Stark. The classic villains are made out to be easy pickings for MCU Spidey and Dr. Strange unless they team up. J. Jonah Jameson has been turned into a one-note villain. Mr. Ditkovitch didn’t make a return appearance.
A very fun movie fueled by fanservice and nostalgia, if maybe not the most heartfelt Spider-Man film.
3: Spider-Man (2002)
Nearly every list that ranks a particular franchise has that point where the quality of work within that franchise ramps up considerably. For this list, this is that moment.
The original 2002 Spider-Man feature is still a treat. Although X-Men beat it to theaters by two years, it’s Spider-Man that created the blueprint for the entire superhero genre. It may be easy to forget in this day and age, when the all-encompassing MCU seems to grow bigger and bigger, swallowing other franchises in its wake. But back in 2002, Spider-Man – and Spider-Man alone – was a huge deal. No Cinematic Universe required.
Spider-Man made superheroes mainstream. It was the first film to make over one-hundred million dollars on its opening weekend, and it became a talking point not just for comic book nerds, but people who had never read a comic book in their life. Kids and adults alike ate it up.
Perhaps Spider-Man’s initial success and continuing legacy can be attributed to how Sam Raimi gave the film a heart. This wasn’t simply an origin story where the hero gets his powers (though it is that too), but also a story about love, loss, and responsibility.
Tobey Maguire made his version of Peter Parker a loveable dweeb: goofy, awkward, somewhat naive. Later Peter Parkers Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland seemed to be cast to turn the character into something of a heartthrob. But Tobey Maguire’s version is nerd incarnate, giving him a more underdog quality.
To compliment the film’s relatable hero, we were given a sympathetic villain in Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), whose descent into the Green Goblin is equal parts tragic and terrifying. He’s the father of Peter’s best friend, and even becomes something of a father figure to Peter, as well. But a desperate attempt to save his company by rushing an experiment – using himself as a test subject – results in his personality being split a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Norman Osborne remains, but the evil Goblin can take over at any moment. Willem Dafoe plays the double role with a brilliance similar to what Andy Serkis would give Gollum a few months later in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
In what is perhaps the best bonus possible, Spider-Man even gave us the greatest comic relief in superhero movie history in J. Jonah Jameson. The bombastic newspaperman was brought to life so flawlessly by J.K. Simmons that Marvel had to bring him back for the role in the MCU, because they knew no one else could match his performance.
We may all laugh at Spider-Man’s origin story by this point, but the 2002 film got it so right. Peter Parker gains his superhuman abilities after being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, and at first uses his newfound abilities to win some money and impress the girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But a petty money squabble leads Peter Parker to let a crook get away, a crook who later shoots Uncle Ben (before Spider-Man 3 retconned the shooter, anyway). Peter holds Uncle Ben’s hand as he passes. No overly long, dramatic speech is necessary. Uncle Ben (memorably played by the late Cliff Robertson) simply shows joy that he can look at a loved one before he passes. With his uncle’s teaching of “with great power comes great responsibility” resonating in his heart, Peter Parker decides to use his powers for the sake of others.
It’s beautifully told, and the emotion is earnest in a way that seems lost on the MCU.
Sure, 2002’s Spider-Man has its share of cheesy moments: the upside-down kiss, Green Goblin’s costume, the wrestling scene… But if anything, those cheesy moments only add to that aforementioned earnestness. Spider-Man is telling the story it needs to tell, and if that entails some awkwardness, then so be it. Personally, I find the cheesiness of the Sam Raimi films to be much less eye-rolling than the forced “applaud here” moments of the MCU.
In 2002, no multiverses needed saving. No one was wiping out half of all life in the universe. There was just Peter Parker growing into Spider-Man fighting Norman Osborne, who had fallen into becoming the Green Goblin. And it was great.
Spider-Man may not be the highest ranked movie on this list. But y’know, it’s something of a classic itself.
2: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
“Inventive” may not be the word you’d use to describe the superhero movies of today, but it’s an apt term when describing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Boasting animation that looks like a comic book come to life and a story that plays with the Spider-Man mythology, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the surprise hit of 2018, becoming one of the most acclaimed superhero films of all time.
Into the Spider-Verse shifts the focus to Miles Morales, who becomes the Spider-Man of his world. When Kingpin activates a portal that starts bringing in people from different universes, Miles has to team up with various other Spider-People from across the multiverse to save the day. Miles’ team includes an out-of-shape Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey from a world where her and Peter’s roles were reversed, a monochromatic Spider-Man out of film noir, an anime girl version of Peter Parker, and a cartoon pig.
The film is as fun and varied as its oddball lineup of characters, with its story unfolding – rather uniquely – from the perspective of its main characters, rather than letting the audience in on most of the details ahead of time. Though perhaps as a consequence of this, Kingpin himself – despite having a pretty good story to him – ends up getting a little shortchanged in the film.
In a time when every superhero movie under the sun seems hellbent on building up towards a string of other superhero movies down the road, Into the Spider-Verse was a breath of fresh air. Here was a new take on Spider-Man, no Cinematic Universe was needed. Into the Spider-Verse worked so well as a standalone movie, that I don’t know if its upcoming sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, can actually match it. The fact that the sequel includes a “Part 1” in the title is also a bit disappointing. I’m all for sequels, but it’s a shame that today’s sequels can’t just be their own movie anymore. They always have to hype up something else on the horizon. Being excited for Across the Spider-Verse isn’t enough these days. You have to be excited for the movies that come after it before it’s even released…
I guess we’ll see how that all ends up. But even if the sequels don’t live up to the original, Into the Spider-Verse will have still left us with one of the most original and definitive movies in the superhero genre.
1:Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Into the Spider-Verse may be the most original Spider-Man movie, but make no mistake about it, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still, quite simply, the best.
The Amazing Spider-Man took a nosedive with its second entry, and the MCU Spider-Man films can feel kind of interchangeable (the fact that No Way Homeneeded to bring back old faces to feel distinct is telling). But 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was a case of a sequel taking everything that was good about the first installment and improving on them in every way. It’s one of the best sequels of all time.
The emotion is better. The drama is better. The action is better. The humor is better. And with all due respect to the Green Goblin, even the villain is better.
With Peter Parker’s personal life suffering due to his duties as Spider-Man, he begins to wonder if the city still needs its web-slinging hero anymore. Meanwhile, Dr. Otto Octavius becomes Peter’s mentor, only to turn to a life of crime once a would-be revolutionary experiment ends in tragedy.
This is a key factor to Spider-Man 2’s enduring appeal: On one hand, it is about Spider-Man’s battles against Doctor Octopus. But even more so, it’s a movie about the inner struggles of Peter Parker and Otto Octavius. Even after all these years, it’s still the single most character-driven Marvel film. But if it’s superhero action you’re looking for, Spider-Man 2 has that covered as well, featuring a number of memorable action scenes, notably its iconic train sequence. Though that’s just one of many, many standout moments created by Spider-Man 2.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a likable dweeb in the first movie, but here he becomes a true hero. And Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock – whose mechanical arms make him a perfect foil for Spider-Man – is a tragic, sympathetic villain with a depth that no Marvel movie since has been able to grasp. The supporting players all get their chance to shine as well, and add even more emotion to the film (the scene where Peter Parker tells Aunt May the events leading up to Uncle Ben’s death being another high point). Not to mention J.K. Simmons is at his best as Jameson.
It all comes down to the characters, really. Everything we loved about them the first time around is brought back in full force, with some great new additions as well. Doc Ock is the obvious newcomer, sure. But even characters like Mr. Ditkovitch – Peter Parker’s stingy landlord – leave an impression. And of course, we have the inspiring scene where the people of New York stand up to Doctor Octopus to defend Spider-Man (this was something of a theme in the Raimi era, with something similar happening in the first film as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, Spider-Man 3 lacked such a scene). Even the random citizens were important here in Spider-Man 2.
Yes, it’s true, Spider-Man 2 has its cheesy elements (though perhaps not to the same level as the first film). But again, I almost feel like they add to its appeal in retrospect. Spider-Man 2 is sincere and upfront, warts and all. It’s as genuine and heartfelt as any superhero movie ever made.
There have been many, many, many movies based on Marvel comics in the nearly eighteen years since its release, but not one of them has made me care as much as Spider-Man 2.
Simply the best.
Chapter 2: The Best of Wizard Dojo in 2021
2021 was not exactly the most productive year for Wizard Dojo. Although January got off to a decent start (I reviewed the entire Oddworld series… although a new entry was released a little while later and I still need to review that), things quickly fell silent. From February through May, I only wrote four posts (all movie reviews), with May being the first month in this site’s seven year history where I didn’t post anything whatsoever. And here we are, nearing the end of the year, and I’ve only reviewed nine videogames in all of 2021…five of which were the aforementioned Oddworld titles in January. I haven’t done right by video games this year, so I guess I should focus more of the Dojo on gaming in 2022. Catch up on the games I played but failed to review this year. Fingers crossed I can catch up to my backlogged game reviews.
With all this said, I still like to think I provided some quality content (by my standards) to Wizard Dojo this year. I certainly wrote about plenty of movies. So now, here’s some quick access to the best of what I wrote in 2021!
Video Game Reviews (might as well post them all here)
The Best of the Rest (Things I wrote that aren’t directly reviews)
The 1000th Blog! – In which I celebrate my 1,000 blog milestone here on Wizard Dojo*. Also includes my ranking of the Paper Mario series.
*Technically, I removed some old filler blogs a while back, and the 1,000th post was the 1,000th not including those removed. And I deleted a further few filler posts of old afterwards. So I guess technically it isn’t the 1,oooth blog anymore. But come on, I’m over 1,000 again. Just let me celebrate.I’ll try not to delete any more past content.
Super Smash Bros. Has Lost its Heart – In which I write about how the Super Smash Bros. series has betrayed what made it so fun and memorable in the first place, with its overemphasis on third-party characters, hype and pandering to eSports at the expense of its own identity.
And now we meet somewhere in the middle, because I posted two movie reviews on the tenth anniversary of their respective movies: Rango and The Adventures of Tintin. But now we’re getting back into review territory.
And perhaps my favorite thing I wrote this past year…
Whether you read any of these back when they were posted or not, I hope you have some fun reading them.
Chapter 3 & 4: My Months in Movies (November and December 2021)
Following suit with my previous ‘My Month in Movies’ post, I figured I’d write about what I watched during the last two months of 2021. Sure, December isn’t quite done yet, and I could still watch another movie or two before year’s end. But come on, it’s Christmas!
Because my last ‘My Month in Movies’ post ended up being so long, I will sadly keep things shorter here (seeing as I had other things to post on this Christmas blog). So here I’ll list the movies, and then go straight into the awards. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to write about some of these movies in more detail sooner rather than later. As before, movies are listed in chronological order of when I watched them, and those with an asterisk are movies I watched for the very first time.
Now let’s get started!
My Month in Movies: November 2021
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Ron’s Gone Wrong*
Home Sweet Home Alone*
Castle in the Sky
Die Hard 2
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Best Movie(s) I Watched All Month: Castle in the Sky and Die Hard
Alright, I’m going to cheat right out the gate and select two movies as the best I watched in November. My reason is simple: they both put up strong arguments to being the best live-action (Die Hard) and animated (Castle in the Sky) action movies of all time. So why not just celebrate both? Also, I know if I just picked Castle in the Sky, my best movies of every month so far would definitely show some favoritism (and having favorite directors or movies or anything is considered taboo these days for some reason).
Castle in the Sky, the first film released by Studio Ghibli (though the third feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki), is one of the most influential animated films ever made. Not only did it kickstart the world’s greatest animation studio, but it continues to influence movies, animation, television and video games to this day. Hell, with the exception of Star Wars, I’m having trouble thinking of a movie that has had as big of an influence on video games as Castle in the Sky. Everything from The Legend of Zelda (most overtly in Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild), Skies of Arcadia, Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy have drawn from it. Even the storyline of Sonic & Knuckles was directly lifted from Castle in the Sky (as a bonus, Dr. Robotnik’s entire character design was largely based on a character from the film).
Even without its impact, Castle in the Sky is such an incredible film. It’s probably Miyazaki’s most straightforward tale, but it’s a perfectly structured adventure film brimming with the director’s unrivaled imagination. Two kids, Pazu and Sheeta, go on an adventure to find Laputa, the titular castle in the sky. A band of pirates, lead by the elderly yet energetic Dola (one of Miyazaki’s best characters), are also out to find the castle and its countless treasures. But a bigger threat looms in the form of the military, under the command of the mysterious Colonel Muska.
Again, it’s a simple adventure story, but flawlessly crafted, and the world it created has proven influential for a reason (the city of Laputa itself is perhaps second only to the bathhouse in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away as the most indelible place in animation). The action set pieces utilize animation to send them over the top of what you would expect. They’re so exciting, in fact, that it’s a mystery Miyazaki never really tackled another full-on action-adventure film after this. A classic.
I feel like I don’t even need to introduce Die Hard. It’s one of the most iconic action movies of all time. It deserves mention alongside the likes of Terminator 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the greatest works of art in the genre (I would also add Speed to that running). And yes, it’s also one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
Taking place on Christmas Eve, New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged wife. He visits her at her place of business, the Nakatomi Corporation. But things quickly go south when a band of terrorists, lead by Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) take over the building. John McClane then has to figure out a way to use what resources he has to take out the bad guys one by one if he wants to save the hostages.
Again, a simple premise, but perfectly executed. Besides how well made and exciting the action sequences are, there are a few key areas that make Die Hard stand out from other action movies: One of them is John McClane himself, a much more human and vulnerable action hero. Released in the late 1980s, Die Hard purposefully made John McClane contrast the seemingly invincible heroes of the genre played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone that dominated the decade. Sure, John McClane still survives things he probably wouldn’t in real life, but just barely. Notably, he just happened to take his shoes off right before the terrorists showed up, so his feet end up in a bad, bloody way before the end of things.
There’s also Hans Gruber, debatably the best villain in any action movie. He has a charisma and cunning about him that make him so much more memorable than other villains in the genre. We can’t forget Officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), John’s only ally outside of the building, who has an interesting story of his own. Then there’s the Nakatomi building itself. Setting all of the action inside one location proved to be a stroke of genius, and gives the film a strong sense of place.
Die Hard’s 90s sequels are also exceptional action flicks (I still haven’t seen the 2007 and 2013 entries), though they lack a number of the qualities that make the original still feel so unique. Al Powell is reduced to a cameo in the second film, never appearing again thereafter. Hans Gruber was never topped in the villain department. The scope grew, at the expense of a singular, iconic location. And John McClane slowly became the indestructible action hero he once defied. They’re solid sequels, sure. But the original Die Hard is the action classic.
And also a Christmas classic.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Eternals
I already wrote a review for Eternals, so mercifully I don’t have to delve too deeply into this mess again.
Suffice to say, it’s the worst entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No contest.
It’s a boring slog with a pessimistic attitude. It has an undeserved sense of self-importance. It conveniently retcons elements of the MCU’s world-building to try and make itself make sense. It’s… uhhh. Yeah.
Look, if you want to know more about why I don’t like it – and you don’t want to scroll all the way back up this wall of text for the last link – I’ll post the link again here.
On the plus side, Spider-Man: No Way Home seems to have brought audience attention right back to the MCU. So thankfully Eternals is already looking like a memory. A bad memory, but still.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Encanto (Ron’s Gone Wrong is a very close second)
One of my bad habits this year was seeing a number of great animated films and then not writing about them, such as Luca and The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. I have no idea why. On that subject, here are two other great animated films that were released this year that I still have yet to review: Disney’s Encanto and Ron’s Gone Wrong! Mayhaps I’ll catch up on these animated movie reviews before I start dedicating Wizard Dojo’s 2022 to video games.
Anyway, Encanto is yet another winner in Disney’s current hot streak of animation. Say what you want about Disney’s live-action output, but their animated films have never been better than they are now. I’d be ostracized from my generation for saying that. But with due respect to the ‘Disney Renaissance’ of the 90s, most of those movies were largely the same. The modern Disney era – whether you think it began with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, a year before that with Bolt, or the year after with Tangled – has provided an array of movies with a depth and variety that Disney has never seen before. It’s now also probably the longest hot streak in the studio’s history, so there’s that too.
Encanto tells a beautiful and heartfelt story about family, as Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), an ordinary girl in an extraordinary family, must figure out why her superpowered siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and mother are losing their magical powers.
It’s beautifully animated and has a great selection of songs (which I almost hate to admit, given they were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But as Moana proved, Disney seems to be able to bring out a more creative side to him and it doesn’t all sound the same). A joy to the senses.
Bafflingly, Encanto was a box office disappointment. That breaks my heart. But now that the film is readily available on Disney+, hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.
Encanto is very worthy to hold the distinction of being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 60th film.
While we’re here, let’s go ahead and give Ron’s Gone Wrong the “Pleasant Surprise of the Year” award. Seriously, “pleasant surprise” may be the best way to describe this movie. It was barely advertised, and those advertisements didn’t exactly look promising. I went to see it more out of curiosity than anything, but ended up seeing a sweet, emotional, wonderful movie.
Yes, it may look like a Big Hero 6 clone on the surface (but would that be so bad?), and its themes of an overreliance on technology and social media were already done relatively recently by The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. But Ron’s Gone Wrong has an identity of its own and ends up being a touching tale about friendship and loneliness.
Just writing about it now, I want to watch Ron’s Gone Wrong again. It’s currently available on both Disney+ and HBO Max. So if you have time for a movie, give this overlooked gem a watch. You’ll be glad you did.
Now seriously, why haven’t I reviewed these yet? I reviewed that piece of crap Eternals fast enough after I saw it, why not these actually great movies? There must be something wrong with me. Go ahead and call me ‘Scott’s Gone Wrong.’
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
I honestly had real trouble thinking about what would take my “Guilty Pleasure Award” for November, and not just because I didn’t watch any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. I really just don’t think I watched anything that fits that bill. I thought maybe the Bill & Ted movies – of which I hold the unpopular opinion that Bogus Journey is way better than Excellent Adventure – but no. I genuinely like them. I also thought about Home Sweet Home Alone, which I reviewed already and found to be mediocre and unmemorable, but harmless entertainment that was better than the other post-Macauley Culkin Home Alone movies.
In the end, I decided to go with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Even now, I don’t know if it really qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I find it to be thoroughly entertaining.
I decided to go with it for one specific reason: Home Alone 2 is basically Home Alone 1. It’s the very definition of a copy-and-paste sequel. However, if any sequel could get away with being so similar to the original, I suppose it would be Home Alone. It is, after all, just a story about a kid being left home alone on Christmas and outsmarting a duo of bumbling burglars. It isn’t exactly aiming for a deep, rich narrative. Sometimes, it’s okay to just have fun.
Home Alone 2 does have a couple of distinctions from its predecessor. The first difference is in its setting (It is called Lost in New York, after all), with Kevin McCallister now staying at the Plaza Hotel as opposed to his actual home. The second difference is that the film adds some secondary antagonists in the form of the hotel’s staff, with the concierge being played by Tim Curry (always a huge bonus).
Otherwise, Home Alone 2 is basically more of the same: the setup of Kevin being separated from his family. Kevin enjoying his time alone, before he inevitably begins to miss his family. Kevin is fearful of a local (this time it’s a Pidgeon Lady in the park), only to befriend them later. And he sets up a series of elaborate booby traps to defeat burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), who are also somehow in New York at the same exact time as Kevin ended up there by accident. But, as an added plus, the booby trap sequence here is longer and more brutal than the first movie, and is perhaps the best example of cartoon violence being done in live-action.
So yeah, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York may as well be called Home Alone Again: But in New York. But what it lacks in narrative creativity it makes up for in sheer entertainment. And I don’t really feel guilty about it.
My Month in Movies: December 2021
West Side Story (1961)*
My Neighbor Totoro
Being the Ricardos*
Spider-Man: No Way Home*
The Santa Clause
The Santa Clause 2
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Jingle All the Way
It’s a Wonderful Life
Best Movie I Watched All Month: My Neighbor Totoro
December may have been my slowest month of movie watching since I started doing these ‘My Month in Movies’ things, but it wouldn’t have mattered how many movies I watched, the crown was guaranteed to go to Totoro.
I say that with the utmost respect to It’s a Wonderful Life – truly one of the best movies ever made -but if there’s one movie I can think of that’s even more life affirming than It’s a Wonderful Life, surely it’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Hayao Miyazaki’s quiet tale about childhood, nature and life really is a one of a kind film. Truthfully, Miyazaki could have retired after Totoro and he’d still be the greatest filmmaker in animation. The fact that he continued to create so many classics afterward is nothing short of inspiring. One of those subsequent films, Spirited Away, is Totoro’s only equal as my all-time favorite film, animated or otherwise.
My Neighbor Totoro is the story about two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they move to a new house to be close to their ailing mother, who is being treated at a hospital. But their new house comes with a surprise, as just beyond it rests a giant camphor tree, which is the home of Totoro. The girls soon discover the animal-like spirit, and have many adventures together.
Totoro was Miyazaki’s follow-up to Castle in the Sky, which may be the most overt display of the director’s versatility. Going from the spectacle and set pieces of Laputa into the ethereal beauty of Totoro was something else. And none of Miyazaki’s artistry was lost in the transition.
My Neighbor Totoro remains Miyazaki’s most iconic film, with its titular character becoming the face of Studio Ghibli (adorning the opening of every film from the studio thereafter). It’s been said that young children in Japan believe in Totoro in a similar way to how children believe in Santa Claus (something which Miyazaki’s colleague and mentor; the late, great Isao Takahata, claimed was Miyazaki’s greatest achievement). Its reputation couldn’t be more deserved. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle and sweet movie I’ve ever seen. A masterpiece.
And let’s give a special shoutout to It’s a Wonderful Life. Because, well, we’re talking about It’s a Wonderful Life here! Famed director Steven Spielberg recently revealed It’s a Wonderful Life to be his favorite movie, and I’m not about to argue that. It deserves all the praise it’s received over the decades. If you tell me you can watch It’s a Wonderful Life without getting choked up and misty-eyed, well then, you’re probably either lying or a robot.
Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Wow. Going from talking about My Neighbor Totoro and It’s a Wonderful Life to talking about The Santa Clause 3. Wow. Just… Wow.
1994’s The Santa Clause is actually one of my favorite Christmas movies. The tale of Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) becoming Santa after the former Father Christmas falls off his roof is unique in that it works as both a kids’ movie and a more complicated one for adults. It’s genuinely a really good Christmas movie.
The 2002 sequel, The Santa Clause 2, is definitely aimed more at youngsters. It doesn’t deal with the same complexities of adulthood as the original, but it works in its own way. It’s another guilty pleasure of mine (and would take that award for December, if not for another Christmas movie). And it’s got Tim Allen in a second role as a human-sized toy Santa who takes over the North Pole and becomes a dictator. So that’s fun.
But The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. Ouch. You thought The Santa Clause 2 was juvenile? It looks like Breaking Bad compared to its successor!
The Santa Clause 3 is basically about Jack Frost (Martin Short) plotting to take over the North Pole, already recycling the second movie. Also, Santa and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby, so Santa brings his in-laws to the North Pole to visit, claiming he works at a toy factory in Canada to keep his status as Santa Claus a secret (he claims the elves are small Canadians, as one does). It’s silly.
None of the more grown up elements of the original are intact, nor does the film feel the need to give children a fun, coherent story like the second movie. Instead we just kind of get a series of hyperactive things happening, and Martin Short running around in a funny costume saying things (admittedly some of which are funny: “Did you just call me skillful and delicious?”). Did I even get into the time travel aspect of it yet? Yeah, Jack Frost and Santa go back in time to the events of the first movie and change history, so kind of like a Back to the Future Part II thing (but that’s giving Santa Clause 3 way too much credit).
Still, at least I can laugh at The Santa Clause 3. That’s more than can be said of Eternals.
Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Being the Ricardos
I saw the original West Side Story for the first time this month (I still need to see the new Spielberg one), and it was good. I also saw Spider-Man: No Way Home, and it was good. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to superheroes and musicals than I am biopics, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t aware of this movie until some friends invited me to tag along with them to see it and thus I was pleasantly surprised, but I’m going to give this honor to Being the Ricardos for the time being.
Being the Ricardos is the latest in a long line of biopics to be released in recent years. I admit I’ve only seen a few of them, but I really enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder. While Being the Ricardos isn’t quite as fun as those movies, I still found it to be a good time.
Ricardos focuses on the inner workings of the production of I Love Lucy, during a particularly turbulent week for the show’s filming (with some additional flashbacks stretching the scope of the film’s story). It has a stellar cast, with Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and my man J.K. Simmons as William Frawley. The cast may not necessarily look like the people they’re portraying (then again, Tom Hanks doesn’t look like Walt Disney, either), but the film has fun with transforming the actors to look more like the I Love Lucy cast in the moments in recreates scenes from the iconic show.
It’s got all the drama you would expect from a biopic, but of course a movie about I Love Lucy has to have some humor involved, and Being the Ricardos includes some genuinely funny bits. It may be a bit Oscar bait-y, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable all the same.
The film was simultaneously released in theaters and Amazon Prime, so I may have to watch this one again at home soon. I repeat, it’s got J.K. Simmons as William Frawley as Fred Mertz! Need I say more?
The Guilty Pleasure Award: Jingle All the Way
Is Jingle All the Way the best bad Christmas movie? I definitely think it makes a strong case.
The weirdly specific sub-genre of “take an action star and put them in a family comedy” was everywhere in the 90s, and even shows up today every now and again. I would say I don’t know why they keep trying, since there hasn’t been a good movie produced by the combination of action star and family comedy (that I can think of, anyway. Unless Last Action Hero counts). But then I remember how gloriously stupid Jingle All the Way is, and suddenly the genre makes sense.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger himself – the action star of the 80s and 90s – Jingle All the Way is a movie about a dad named Howard Langston trying to make up for his failings as a father by getting his son the toy of his dreams for Christmas. The problem is he forgot to get the hot-selling toy (a superhero named Turbo Man) ahead of time, and now that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s going to be impossible to find! It doesn’t help that he keeps running into a troublesome mailman named Myron (Sinbad) who’s after the same toy.
Using last minute Christmas shopping as the premise for a Christmas comedy actually isn’t a bad idea. It’s the kind of thing we’ve all been through, and that a movie could exaggerate for comedic effect. The problem (great thing?) is that Jingle All the Way exaggerates it so much, that the film ends up being completely bonkers.
Howard has to literally fight his way through a mall to get a raffle ball, gets tangled up with a group of Santa Claus conmen, and in one of the most ludicrous finales ever conceived by mankind, Howard becomes Turbo Man himself for a Christmas parade (complete with working jetpack), where he does battle against Myron, who dons the costume of Turbo Man’s nemesis. Oh yeah, all this while Harold’s pervy neighbor (the late Phil Hartman) keeps trying to put the moves of Harold’s wife. You know, kids’ movie stuff.
The movie is completely ridiculous. It’s dumb, goofy, and makes cosmic leaps in logic. Yet I find it impossible not to give Jingle All the Way at least one annual viewing towards Christmastime. It’s dumb fun. But the emphasis is on fun.
There are a number of good Christmas movies to watch around the holidays, but if you just want to have something you can have fun with and laugh at, Jingle All the Way has you covered.
I mean, how could you not be entertained by a movie that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger screaming the words “Put that cookie down! Now!”
Chapter 5: The Last One
I apologize that I once again have to cut my Christmas special short, chapter-wise (though the word count here is among my highest to date). Remember when I used to do eight chapters to these things? And that was not counting these ending parts which now are one of the numbered chapters. It’s kind of like how in Banjo-Kazooie, the final boss level was considered its own separate entity outside of the nine proper levels, but then Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie included the final boss stage as part of their level count to try to hide the fact that they had less levels.
My point is that hopefully next year I can get started on my Christmas post earlier and do something extra special with it. I love Christmas. I made sure my site would celebrate its anniversary on Christmas Day for a reason (and not just because it would be easy to remember). So here’s hoping that I can eventually make these Christmas posts everything they should be.
At any rate, I hope you had a good time reading this. But more importantly, I hope you had a Merry Christmas, or happy Hannukah, or happy Kwanza! Happy everybody! Happy holidays to all!
I’ll see you in 2022… And by ‘see you’ I mean I’ll write some stuff here and maybe some people will stumble on it by sheer accident and decide to read it if they have nothing better to do.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third installment of the Spider-Man sub-series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It seems the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has had a strong influence on the direction of the MCU’s Spider-Man, with No Way Home introducing a multiverse into the series. While the whole multiverse concept is done to death these days (and often feels like a cheap means to “change up” a series and its characters), No Way Home at least uses the concept in a fun way to connect itself to the pre-MCU Spider-Man films (AKA the better Spider-Man films, at least in regard to the original Sam Raimi-directed features). While the merging together of different Spider-Man adaptations provides an entertaining feature filled with fanservice that I think is a step up from the previous Tom Holland-era Spider-Man flicks, No Way Home can feel a bit overstuffed at times, and it doesn’t always do right by the characters it brings back from yesteryear.
Taking place shortly after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, No Way Home sees the aftermath of Peter Parker having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Having been framed for the death of Mysterio, Parker becomes public enemy number one, with his worldwide infamy not only affecting his life, but also those close to him: his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).
With his life in shambles, and his loved ones suffering as a consequence, Peter Parker turns to his fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to find a way he can get his life back to normal (I guess if you know a wizard, that’d be the person to turn to for answers). Strange says he can perform a spell that will undo the world’s knowledge of Peter Parker’s identity (in a scene I’m sure you’ve seen a hundred times in the trailer). But because Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is annoying and intrusive, he keeps bothering Dr. Strange during the spell, and the magic is botched. Not only does the spell fail to erase the world’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity, but it also starts summoning people from other universes who are aware of Spider-Man’s identity in their world. Namely, it starts bringing in Spider-Man’s foes from other worlds: Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Flint Marco/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx).
With all these villains on the loose, Dr. Strange instructs Peter Parker to help him collect these villains in order to send them back to their own worlds, as their continued presence in this world threatens the fabric of reality. But after learning of the sad fates that await each of his foes in their own world, Peter Parker starts to have second thoughts about his mission (though Sandman got off pretty easy in Spider-Man 3, if you remember).
The plot is a little… wonky, for lack of a better word. I love the idea of bringing back these past villains, particularly because the Sam Raimi era antagonists (the first two, anyway) were much better written than any baddie in the MCU (their inclusion here is basically Marvel’s way of admitting “yeah, we can’t do better villains than that. So just bring them back in our movie.”). But the setup of resurrecting these villains just feels kind of clunky. It gives off the impression that the filmmakers saw Into the Spider-Verse, and wanted to use a similar multiverse setup, and then had the idea to use that as a launching pad to connect the film to pre-MCU Spidey films and bring back the classic villains (an admittedly fun idea). But then they suddenly remembered they had that cliffhanger from Far From Home that they needed to address, and then scrambled to find a way to connect that cliffhanger with their multiverse/returning villains idea. And because these MCU Spider-Man movies love shoehorning in another Avengers hero, they decided to use Dr. Strange – a wizard – as an easy means to link their new concept and lingering plot thread together (because the MCU only acknowledges magic when it’s a convenient plot device).
So the premise is weak. But at least it gives us a chance to revisit all these memorable foes of yesteryear, with the highlights of course being Willem Dafoe’s Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock (the latter of which I’ll still say is hands down the best villain in any Marvel movie). On the downside, No Way Home seems to take delight in poking fun of these characters and their movies as much as it pays homage to them, because of course the MCU just has to undercut anything serious or heartfelt with a snide remark or two.
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, as campy as they could get at times, never felt the need to belittle their own stories for the sake of jokes. That might explain why I still remember them so fondly, whereas the MCU films have much less of an identity of their own (that, and the MCU’s constant need to hype up future movies at the expense of the story at hand). The Sam Raimi films could be cheesy, but they were honest and genuine in a way that even the best MCU films are not. Even Spider-Man 3, as messy as it was, was at least its own mess.
I mention this because, by bringing in characters from the past Spider-Man films, No Way Home inadvertently exposes the MCU for its over manufactured nature. We’ve seen this same Green Goblin and this same Doc Ock in other movies that had heart. No Way Home acknowledges that these villains have more to them than meets the eye, but it’s tough to say whether or not No Way Home has anything more to itself. Just as Green Goblin and Doc Ock are displaced from their time and place in the film’s story, they’re also displaced as complex villains from more genuine superhero movies who now find themselves in an increasingly pandering “cinematic universe” (fun though it may be). The films Green Goblin and Doc Ock came from had something to say. The MCU is always hyping what’s on the horizon, rarely taking the time to say much.
Annoyingly, the film makes the returning villains out to be not much of a threat on their own – being quickly beaten or outsmarted by MCU’s Spidey and Dr. Strange – and only banded together do the bad guys prove dangerous to the MCU heroes (because the MCU is childish like that and NO ONE CAN BE STRONGER THAN ITS CHARACTERS!). It’s just kind of weird how the film wants us to delight in the nostalgia these characters provide, only to undermine it by enforcing the idea that these characters aren’t as good as the new ones (a concerning trend in the MCU as of late). There are ways to make a current story feel more important without stepping all over the past. Maybe by caring more about the present and less about hyping the future? Just a suggestion.
I guess I shouldn’t say it’s all hype this time around. No Way Home gives a solid effort and has some strong emotional moments, but it still ultimately succumbs to some MCU-ness that takes some of that away. At least Tony Stark’s overbearing presence is no longer casting a shadow on these Spider-Man films, though you could say Dr. Strange simply takes over that role, conveniently just in time to build hype for his upcoming sequel.
Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative. But I suppose most of my complaints are more towards the MCU as a whole, and how it affects No Way Home, than they are with No Way Home itself. On the positive side of things, No Way Home brings fun back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Eternals saw fit to be an excruciating bore.
Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t skimp on the action scenes, and though they can’t quite match those of the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the action scenes here are more visually distinct from most of those in the MCU. An early encounter against Doctor Octopus on a freeway over a bridge is a notable highlight (due in no small part that Doc Ock’s conceptually simple power of having mechanical arms on his back provides a visually perfect supervillain). A duel between Spidey and mentor Dr. Strange also delivers a visual spectacle (especially since it seems to unapologetically turn to the video game Portal for inspiration). And of course, No Way Home features plenty of great fanservice moments, perhaps more so than any other MCU film (Endgame be damned), seeing as it gives so many blatant callbacks to the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Amazing Spider-Man films in addition to the usual MCU fare. Again, some of the references are deprecating, which is disappointing. But when No Way Home pays proper respects to past movies, damn, it’s satisfying. Without spoiling anything, one moment in particular is probably the most touching piece of nostalgia/fanservice I’ve seen in a long time, and honestly gave me a lump in my throat. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s probably not the moment you’re thinking of. Or that other one. Or that other one. But it was special to me.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is a very entertaining movie, even with its faults. It provides the crowd pleasing fun you’d expect from the MCU, and even has moments that pack an emotional punch. Simply seeing Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe back as Dock Ock and Green Goblin (and to a lesser extent, the other villains) is an utter joy. But it’s a shame the setup to it all feels a bit forced. It has plenty of merit, but Spider-Man: No Way Home can’t help but feel a bit cluttered, and the overarching MCU is starting to negatively affect the individual stories within it (I’m really not spoiling much by saying the end-credits sequence here is literally a trailer for the Doctor Strange sequel). As big as the MCU has become, it would do well for itself to learn from the movies that No Way Home borrows from.
I think my point can be summed up by the character of J. Jonah Jameson. While I couldn’t be happier that Marvel brought back the great J.K. Simmons to portray Jameson in the MCU (making him something of the “connective tissue” between Spider-Man’s cinematic past and present), the MCU version of the character is purely antagonistic. He’s a corrupt newsman who spreads misinformation and fearmongering. While the real-world parallels are timely, they come at the expense of the character himself, who’s now a one-note villain. Compare him to the Jameson of Sam Raimi’s trilogy: he was still a biased newspaperman who let his emotions get the best of him, but there was more to him than that. In the 2002 film, Jameson was loud, bombastic, and was out to smear the good name of Spider-Man, the hero we were meant to cheer for. But as soon as Green Goblin attacked Jameson in his office demanding to know “who takes the pictures of Spider-Man” for Jameson’s paper, without missing a beat, Jameson wouldn’t surrender Peter Parker’s name to the Goblin. The same character who up until that point was depicted as antagonistic comic relief was suddenly willing to risk his life to save someone he barely knew.
That’s the kind of character element that continues to make the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films so memorable. And it’s something the MCU is sorely lacking. Spider-Man: No Way Home tries to replicate that by bringing back the classic villains and the stories they entail. But it only seems to half-understand what it has on its hands. Either that, or it’s place in the MCU only makes it able to half-realize it.
To this day, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is not only my favorite Spider-Man movie (sorry Into the Spider-Verse), but my favorite Marvel movie. And possibly one of my favorite movies outright. It had its faults and its cheesy moments, but damn it all, it had heart! Suffice to say, I don’t think Spider-Man: No Way Home poses any threat to displacing Spider-Man 2 as my favorite Marvel/Spider-Man movie. But in a way, No Way Home reminded me why I love Spider-Man 2 so much. I suppose that’s a victory in its own right.
“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”
November had more than a few anniversaries to make us feel old, but now it’s December’s turn! Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theater. That’s right, the first installment in cinema’s greatest trilogy first hit the big screen on December 19th 2001.
Wow, twenty years… On one hand, it really does feel like a distant and ever so fond memory, seeing Fellowship of the Ring in theaters for the first time. On the other hand, it’s so vivid in my mind it feels like it wasn’t long ago at all.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy made fantasy mainstream (okay, Harry Potter also helped, but J.K. Rowling’s imagination was never on Tolkien’s level). It helped change the way movies are made, and revolutionized visual effects in a way similar to Star Wars, Roger Rabbit or Jurassic Park before it, and in a way I don’t think we’ve seen since.
Peter Jackson’s films proved to be perfect adaptations of Tolkien’s work. I know some purists would hate me for saying that, given the changes Jackson did make to the material. But keeping in mind that books and movies are different artforms, I feel those changes were necessary and complimentary to bringing Middle-Earth to life on screen. So yes, they are “perfect adaptations” in that sense. I honestly can’t imagine the Lord of the Rings films being any better. Both individually and as a collective trilogy, they easily rank highly among my all-time favorites, and may even be my favorite films that aren’t animated.
The Lord of the Rings films were (and are) so great, in fact, that even the Academy Awards, who are so averse to fantasy and seemingly allergic to imagination, couldn’t refrain from lavishing the trilogy with awards!
The quest to destroy the One Ring, an epic journey that has yet to be matched in cinema, first began two decades ago. And in those years, the trilogy hasn’t lost any of its luster or mystique. Peter Jackson’s later adaptation of The Hobbit couldn’t hope to match what was accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, though personally I think the Hobbit films are much, much better than they get credit for (they’re certainly better than other spinoff movie series we’ve seen, such as the Star Wars prequels and sequels, or the Fantastic Beasts movies). But it’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that’s undoubtedly a timeless classic.
Come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Spirited Away all celebrated their twentieth anniversaries this year. I think it’s safe to say that 2001 was easily the most impactful and influential year for fantasy films.
Happy twentieth anniversary, Lord of the Rings!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dedicate the next few days to watching the extended editions.
Well, this has certainly been a longtime coming. The original 1984 Ghostbusters remains one of the most beloved comedies of all time. It’s one of those movies that helped define its decade and shape a generation. Simply put, Ghostbusters was a phenomenon.
Despite being an adult-oriented comedy, its fun, supernatural premise made Ghostbusters one of those movies that won over audiences of all ages, with toylines, video games and a popular cartoon series released in its wake. Such franchising may seem commonplace these days, but in 1984, the only other movie that had that kind of impact was Star Wars, released seven years prior. One would think with the level of success Ghostbusters reached, that we would have seen many Ghostbusters sequels by this point.
Five years after the first film, Ghostbusters II was released. Though a modest success, it failed to reach the critical and commercial heights of its predecessor (though the sequel has gained more appreciation in the years since). While it’s understandable that the humbler success of Ghostbusters II slowed things down, this was still Ghostbusters we’re talking about. A third film (and more) seemed inevitable. Yet fans waited and waited for years and years and years, and ‘Ghostbusters III’ never materialized.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Series creator, co-writer and co-star Dan Aykroyd had ideas planned out, and even scripts written in various different forms over the years. I can’t remember a time growing up in which there weren’t talks of Ghostbusters III nearing production. And yet, it never happened. Despite being one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, one of the earliest blockbusters, and one of the most popular film franchises in history, Ghostbusters – as far as the movies went – seemed locked in the 80s.
Fast-forward to 2009, which saw the release of Ghostbusters: The Video Game on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Not only did the game bring back the original cast to voice their respective characters, it was even based on several of the potential Ghostbusters III ideas. The game’s success, and the fact it was able to nab the cast (including Bill Murray, who was previously reluctant to return to the franchise) revitalized studio interest in possibly producing a third Ghostbusters film. A few more years went by, and still, nothing came about.
Sadly, in 2014, actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis – who portrayed Ghostbuster Egon Spengler and wrote the first two films alongside Aykroyd – passed away. This halted plans for Ghostbusters 3 yet again, which eventually lead to Columbia and Sony deciding to outright reboot the franchise.
It didn’t go well.
The 2016 reboot ended up being a box office bomb and was, sadly, one of those things that became unnecessarily politicized due to its all female cast, with studios all too willing to vilify disappointed fans, and blaming its lackluster box office run on sexism (Wonder Woman and Frozen say hello, by the way). In actuality, it was the nature of rebooting the Ghostbusters outright that was so deflating to fans (myself included). Again, we weren’t talking about a franchise that already had several sequels and was in need of a fresh start. Ghostbusters bizarrely halted after its second entry, and ‘Ghostbusters III’ always seemed to be floating around. Fans simply wanted it to become a reality. A reboot was not something that anyone asked for.
Finally, in 2019, it seemed like Ghostbusters III was actually happening, with Ghostbusters: Afterlife being revealed by director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the original two films). The movie was originally scheduled for a Summer 2020 release, but we all know how 2020 ended up, and the film’s release was delayed by over a year.
So here we are, thirty-two years after Ghostbusters II, and audiences are finally getting a follow-up to the classic 1980s films. Being thirty-two years old myself as of this writing, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is, in a way, a movie I have waited my whole life to see.
Though it isn’t the movie that I (and I think others) ultimately wanted, Ghostbusters: Afterlife still provides an entertaining feature that plays out more like a love letter to Ghostbusters, and a fun way for today’s kids to jump into the series, if maybe not the proper Ghostbusters III we’ve waited ever so patiently to see.
Appropriately set thirty-two years after the defeat of Vigo the Carpathian, the Ghostbusters have long-since disbanded due to the lack of supernatural activity in New York City. Right off the bat, that’s a little disappointing. Knowing that the Ghostbusters didn’t have any further adventures in between Ghostbusters II and Afterlife is kind of a bummer. The film could have at least said the ghost activity quieted down after another decade or so, to at least let us imagine the shenanigans the Ghostbusters could have gotten into together during that time.
Anyway, as the Ghostbusters went their separate ways, only Egon Spengler continued his research on the supernatural. These studies eventually lead him to the small town of Summerville, Oklahoma, a town founded by the Gozerian cultist Ivo Shandor (who was mentioned in the original film, and served as the villain in the 2009 video game). Sadly, Egon has recently passed away due to a heart attack, leaving his Summerville farmland to his estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon).
Callie has recently been evicted from her apartment in the city, and moves into her father’s farm with her two kids, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace), who never knew their grandfather and are unaware that he was a Ghostbuster. Though neither kid is too enthusiastic about living in the dilapidated farm, Trevor quickly takes to the new town, getting a Summer job at a restaurant to be close to his new crush, Lucky (Celeste O’Connor). The more socially awkward Phoebe has a tougher time fitting in, but manages to find a friend in a kid who calls himself ‘Podcast’ (Logan Kim). Though Phoebe is more interested in the ghostly presence that seems to be living in the farm than she is with the town itself.
Naturally, as time goes by, the Spengler kids begin to unearth their family history. Phoebe discovers her grandfather’s secret room, where he kept most of his Ghostbusters equipment, while Trevor repairs the Ectomobile hiding out in the shed. Additionally, Phoebe’s Summer school teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a lifelong admirer of the Ghostbusters, helps the kids learn of their grandfather’s work.
Of course, with Summerville being founded by Ivo Shandor, there’s going to be more to the town than meets the eye. And Summerville hides a secret that connects it to the evil, interdimensional entity Gozer.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is undeniably a fun movie: It plays up the fanservice for the series and introduces us to some fun new characters, it’s a well-acted picture (with particular praise going to McKenna Grace, who fittingly makes Phoebe a young, female version of Egon), and the visual effects are quite good. But the film does hit a few bumps in the road.
Let’s get to the elephant in the room right away: the original Ghostbusters cast are barely in the movie. Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd all return as Peter Venkman, Winston Zeddemore and Ray Stantz (respectively), but only for a few all-too-brief moments of screentime.
Now, okay, I get it. It’s not their movie. I understand that, and I’m fine with it. After things got to a certain point, I always figured a potential third Ghostbusters movie would be about the Ghostbusters passing the mantle down to a new generation. The issue I have is that Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t that. The original Ghostbusters just kind of show up in Afterlife, without any real significance to the story, other than Egon’s legacy. While seeing Peter, Winston and Ray will always be a welcome sight, their role in Afterlife feels kind of like a glorified cameo. Annie Potts also returns as Janine Melnitz, but what you saw of her in the trailer is what you see of her in the movie. At least they’re all playing their beloved characters this time, instead of unrelated cameos like the 2016 movie.
What I’m getting at is the film really takes its time relishing in the fanservice of all the gadgets and gizmos of the Ghostbusters. The movie basks in the glory of the Ecto-1 and the ghost traps, but it didn’t stop and think that, just maybe, the fanservice Ghostbusters fans would most want is the Ghostbusters themselves? Again, I’m fine with the fact that it’s not their movie anymore, but after all the time that’s passed since Ghostbusters 2, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have loved to have seen the iconic original cast actually have some role in the plot. I can kind of get what they were going for, building up to the classic characters that made us love the series to begin with. But after thirty-two years and all the start/stops of a potential third entry, we kind of want to spend a little more time with these beloved characters.
It just seems so weird that Sony and Columbia can’t seem to figure this out. First they give us a reboot that no one asked for, and now we finally have a follow-up to Ghostbusters 2, and the role of the Ghostbusters is minimal. It really shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. You have a Ghostbusters movie, give us the Ghostbusters!
Okay, I’m going on about this quite a bit. But I think this is an important aspect to bring up because I think depending on how you view Afterlife’s position as a sequel to Ghostbusters II will affect your overall opinion of the film (if you’re a longtime fan of the franchise like me, anyway). If you’re looking at Afterlife as Ghostbusters 3, then you’re probably going to be disappointed, because it doesn’t really fit that bill. But if you view Afterlife as its own movie that simply takes place in the Ghostbusters universe, it becomes easier to admire.
Even with its merits, however, Ghostbusters: Afterlife still folds a bit under the pressure of living up to the original 1984 film, as much of the plot is derived from the mythology surrounding the Gozer character established in that film (and sadly, as a fan/nerd of the series, I can point out some inconsistencies Afterlife creates within the established Gozer mythology). One of the downsides to this is that Afterlife simply recreates many of the same story beats of the original film in regards to said Gozer mythology, instead of getting creative and making something new out of it (we are talking about an interdimensional god, after all. There’s plenty of room to get creative with that concept). There are so many directions they could have gone when you have a villain like Gozer, so it’s a shame that Afterlife chooses to fall back on familiar territory.
Unfortunately, as much as Afterlife loves to make callbacks and create fanservice, it only does so in regards to the original film. Because outside of a few background Easter eggs, the only reference to Ghostbusters II is that Ray is back working at his occult book store, first seen in the 1989 sequel.
Look, I understand that Ghostbusters II isn’t as esteemed as its predecessor (I love it to death, personally), but it’s still an important part of Ghostbusters history. The characters in Afterlife are constantly referring to the events of the original film as the “Manhattan Incident,” but shouldn’t it be the Manhattan IncidentS? Did everyone just forget that the evil spirit of a 16th century tyrant almost resurrected himself through a painting, and that the Ghostbusters animated the Statue of Liberty to stop him? That seems like something the characters in this movie should remember. It’s almost like Afterlife is embarrassed by Ghostbusters II’s initial reception, and glosses over its events as a result. But in ignoring the sequel to Ghostbusters, it makes Afterlife’s reverence for the series’ history feel incomplete.
Another downer is that the whole subplot involving the Ivo Shandor character feels underdeveloped, like maybe there were several scenes involving this aspect of the story that were cut from the final film. Ivo Shandor’s subplot in the film is introduced, forgotten about, and then rapidly resolved all at once (sadly for fans, this also probably means Ghostbusters: The Video Game is no longer canon). Without spoiling any details, the scene that wraps up Ivo Shandor’s role in the story is also the worst scene in the movie, being edited so sloppily you can tell some of its events are clearly playing out of order (and not in a way I think was intentional). The scene in question moves so hectically and sporadically, that I wonder if the editor downed an entire gallon of Kool-Aid beforehand. It’s reminiscent of the chaotic pace of The Rise of Skywalker, albeit not nearly that bad (and at least here it’s just a single scene, not the whole picture).
Aside from that one scene/subplot, most of my complaints with Ghostbusters: Afterlife are admittedly rooted in my status as a lifelong fan of the series (it plays up fanservice but doesn’t feature enough of the Ghostbusters themselves. It pays homage to the original film but ignores Ghostbusters II, etc.). Granted, due to the continuity of the films, I feel those complaints are still worth mentioning, but they are still the complaints of someone who’s been waiting their whole life for Ghostbusters III. But let’s be fair, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not Ghostbusters III. It’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife. And that’s okay.
I admit it took me two viewings to be able to properly appreciate Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The first time, the shadow of its predecessors (and the whole “waiting my entire life” thing) worked against it. I still enjoyed it, but my misgivings were stronger the first time around. Only after seeing it a second time, and seeing it only for itself, did my complaints become more subdued.
There is a lot to like about Ghostbusters: Afterlife once you accept it for what it is. The film made the right choice by making its young heroes the descendants of Egon Spengler, with the whole film playing out like a loving tribute to Harold Ramis and the character he brought to life. There are also plenty of fun scenes to be had, with some highlights being a chase sequence where the kids follow a runaway ghost in the Ecto-1, and a scene where an army of mini Stay Puft Marshmallow Men torment Gary Grooberson in a Walmart.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an entertaining movie. It may get bogged down at times by playing up the fanservice and not always getting it right. But this is a movie aimed more towards introducing a new generation of kids to the Ghostbusters. It presents the material in a more kid-friendly, Spielbergian way. So even though the film may fall back on nostalgia, it does open the door for a new direction for the series going forward. The Spengler family and their friends could have more adventures, and the film even hints that one of the original Ghostbusters may start things back up in New York.
During my first viewing of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, there was a group of kids in the audience dressed like Ghostbusters. It warms my heart knowing that the series still appeals to kids today. I think it’s important to remember that Ghostbusters: Afterlife was made more for these kids, with us older fans still getting a little bit of what we want out of it.
Ghostbusters III, as we always wanted it, is a myth. Sony and Columbia (bafflingly) missed that opportunity years ago. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives us something else to enjoy in its own right. And if all goes well, maybe the kids that this movie was made for can get a Ghostbusters III of their own.
8-Bit Christmas is a new HBO Max Christmas comedy, about a father recounting a story to his daughter. The story of his quest to get a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas during his youth in the late 1980s. As soon as you read that premise, your mind is probably thinking 8-Bit Christmas is like A Christmas Story meets Jingle All the Way, and I think that’s what the movie is aiming for. Unfortunately, that fun combination of retro Christmas movies exists in premise only, as 8-Bit Christmas seems to squander its humor – and the simple premise of “kid wants Nintendo for Christmas” – at every other turn.
The aforementioned father is Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris), who begins telling the tale when his family visits his parents’ house for the holidays, and he and his daughter boot up his old Nintendo Entertainment System (or simply “the Nintendo” as the film calls it, as many of us did back in the day). They pause the game as soon as they start playing it in order for Jake to spin his yarn, with the movie failing to make the obvious jab at the irony that they could be playing the Nintendo instead of talking about how he got it. If the movie fails to even make that obvious joke, well, let that be an indicator of things to come. There’s a lot of missed opportunities for humor going forward.
Flashing back to the “late 80s” and young Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) wants nothing more than to get an NES for Christmas. But his parents (Steve Zahn and June Diane Raphael) have no intention of getting him the console, citing its hefty price tag and, more annoyingly, buying into the hysteria of video game violence that many a dumb parent bought into during the 80s (and well into the 90s). The only kid in town who owns a Nintendo is a spoiled rich brat who insists the other kids in the neighborhood bring him gifts just for the opportunity to watch him play Nintendo. But Jake is desperate enough that he does what the rich kid asks just to catch a glimpse of the video game system.
That all changes when an accident occurs at the rich kid’s house, as the brat grows frustrated at his defective Power Glove (that is to say, his Power Glove) and he jumpkicks the TV, which falls and crushes his dog. The dog ends up being okay, but the film takes its sweet time letting us know this, which seems awfully cruel for a PG-rated movie (when will comedies learn that you can’t make a dog getting hurt funny? It just doesn’t work. It can’t). The rich kid’s parents then lead the neighborhood’s revolt against video games (though this isn’t brought up until later, and even then, feels only half-realized).
With his only access to Nintendo in the past, the young Jake Doyle decides to take matters into his own hands and win a Nintendo for himself, as his scout troop is giving one away to whomever can sell the most Christmas wreaths. Of course, that ends up being just one of several endeavors Jake Doyle partakes in his quest to get his own Nintendo. Sadly, every last one of these endeavors ends up feeling, you guessed it, half-realized.
That’s the main issue with 8-Bit Christmas, it introduces a number of situations that could be funny, but never manages to wring anything memorable or comedic out of them (I guess the idea that the gym teacher was among those bringing gifts to the rich kid in order to see the Nintendo was kind of funny, but that’s one quick gag). You could argue that the movie puts the nostalgia for Nintendo and the 80s ahead of the comedy, which could provide something entertaining (if pandering) in its own right. But 8-Bit Christmas even fails at the nostalgia.
For example, the only two real life games you see played in the movie are Paper Boy and Rampage, which are hardly the first two games you’d think of when you think of the NES. The game you see given the most play time is a fighting game made exclusively for the movie (leading me to think the images the filmmakers made for the game were simply placeholders until they could secure the rights to use a real game, but never ended up getting the rights to whatever that was). Despite the movie being about a kid’s obsession with Nintendo, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda only get one verbal mention apiece. I mean, if your movie is going to pander to the nostalgia of people like me who grew up with Nintendo, then at least give us what we want to see.
There are other details the movie gets wrong about the time period, like how Jake’s sister is part of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, something that happened in 1983, two years before the NES was even released. Granted, I think the movie is trying to use Jake’s faulty memory as a means to give its flashback narrative an excuse to smoosh together as much 1980s as possible, similar to the television series The Goldbergs, but that can only go so far. It’s one thing if Adam Goldberg wears a Roger Rabbit shirt in a time before he should be wearing it, but it’s another thing if the entire story is built on some weird Frankenstein’s Monster of the 1980s.
The movie has a little bit of fun with the idea of Jake’s memory at first, like when he’s seen riding his bike wearing only a cap, until his present-day daughter asks if he wore a helmet like he always tells her, and then a helmet magically appears on the young Jake’s head in the flashback. There’s also Jake’s father’s penchant for swearing being replaced with an angry “God bless it!” as Jake censors the story for his daughter. Then there’s Jake’s parents’ blatant favoritism towards his sister, which he’s adding to his story to make it sound like the odds were stacked against him all the more. And I think we’re to assume the rich kid’s aforementioned jumpkick to the TV is supposed to be an embellishment. These are fun little ideas, but the movie seems to forget about this element as it goes on, which is a shame because this is where playing with the idea of faulty memory can be fun. Had they stuck to it throughout there could have been more creativity here.
I suppose asking for creativity out of this movie is asking for too much. Again, this is a movie of half-realizations. The pieces are all here to make for a good Christmas comedy, but nothing ever really comes together. For example, there’s a scene where – after all the stores sold out of Cabbage Patch Kids – Jake and his father decide to buy one for his sister from a “street dealer” in the middle of the night. The dealer (David Cross) opens the trunk of his car to reveal the Cabbage Patch Kids among other toys, including an NES. The scene feels entirely detached from the main plot until Jake sees the Nintendo in the trunk. But nothing comes from it. Jake doesn’t try to talk his dad into it or barter with the toy dealer to get the NES. So what’s the point of the scene? What’s the punchline? The concept of the guy dealing toys on the streets is an appropriately silly concept, but you kind of have to bring it to life with jokes and writing. Suffice to say, the Seinfeld scene with showerhead smugglers, this is not.
8-Bit Christmas’s inability to bring out the comedy in its situations is one of its two great faults. The other is that the movie can’t seem to decide who it wants its target audience to be. Given the film’s PG rating, it’s as crude as it can be, with references to vomit and diarrhea abound. At times it seems like it wants to get cruder with its content (like dropping a TV on a dog, not that that would ever be funny no matter the rating), but it’s too skittish to go further because it also wants to be a kids’ movie. But it also isn’t smart enough to figure out how to tell jokes within the “restraints” of its PG rating. 8-Bit Christmas is a movie that’s almost one thing, and not quite another.
This indecisiveness is perhaps most prevalent in the film’s finale in which – without spoiling anything – the movie suddenly tries to salvage itself with a heartwarming ending between young Jake and his father. Up until that point the movie has been aiming (and missing) to just be dumb fun, when it isn’t trying to be crude and irreverent, that is. So for the ending to suddenly try to bring sentimentality to the picture makes that sentiment feel unearned.
You can tell 8-Bit Christmas is yearning to be compared to A Christmas Story, which is considered a classic Christmas comedy. It’s not A Christmas Story, it’s not even Jingle All the Way. At least that movie embraced its lunacy and, dumb as it may be, is the kind of movie that will leave you with a big, goofy grin on your face. I would have been perfectly fine if 8-Bit Christmas were simply “Jingle All the Way but with a Nintendo.”
I admit I’ve seen far worse Christmas movies than 8-Bit Christmas. Winslow Fegley fits the role of a Nintendo obsessed kid in the 80s, and Neil Patrick Harris’s narration helps move things along. And its jabs at the pointless controversies surrounding video games back in the day are funny (though they’re only really funny if you’re someone like me, who remembers all that silliness, as opposed to the film bringing anything funny out of it through its own creativity). But the film ends up feeling aimless and directionless as it fails to capitalize on any of the situations it introduces. Was it really so difficult for 8-Bit Christmas to just have the silly, simple story of a kid wanting a Nintendo for Christmas, and running with it?
One other movie that 8-Bit Christmas may draw comparisons to is The Wizard, the 1989 Fred Savage vehicle that was little more than an advertisement for Nintendo (and Universal Studios). The difference between the two is that you can laugh at The Wizard, because it was supposed to be serious despite its failings. But when you’re supposed to laugh at something and can’t, it’s harder to appreciate even ironically.
8-Bit Christmas is like the Power Glove… it’s so bad.
Goodness gracious, what’s with November and making us feel old?! Xbox and GameCube turned twenty, the Wii turned 15, the Super Nintendo turned 31 just yesterday, and now, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast turns the big 3-0! Beauty and the Beast was released thirty years ago today, on November 22nd 1991.
Beauty and the Beast was the second proper film of the “Disney Renaissance” era, after The Little Mermaid (The Rescuers Down Under doesn’t count). The Little Mermaid may have kickstarted the Broadway musical-style of Disney film, but Beauty and the Beast took it to new heights, and ensured it was here to stay (well, there was that period in the 2000s when Disney left the musical behind, and perhaps not coincidentally it was considered another dark age for the studio).
Although the earliest Disney films were (and are) praised by film buffs and historians, Beauty and the Beast was really the first “prestige” animated film in that it broke a number of barriers for the medium’s recognition. Notably, it became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, in addition to four other nominations. Though there are a few caveats to these in that three of those nominations were for Best Song (a credit to the film’s stellar song work, but it shows that the Academy refuses to nominate animated films in other categories). The fact that only two additional animated features have been nominated for Best Picture since, and the creation of the Best Animated Feature Oscar ten years later is more damning evidence that the Academy was never going to give animation a fair chance. And suffice to say, Beauty and the Beast didn’t actually win Best Picture. But at the time, this was a huge deal, and those caveats apply to the Academy Awards, not the film itself. Because Beauty and the Beast really is a great movie.
Beauty and the Beast appropriately became the first Disney film to have a Broadway musical adaptation, which ran until 2007. The film also saw a tenth anniversary release in select theaters in 2001, which even incorporated a previously deleted scene/song. It was then given a modestly successful 3D re-release in 2012 during Disney’s brief “re-release our classics in 3D” phase of the early 2010s. Perhaps we should look back at that time more fondly, since a few years later, Disney would begin full-on remaking all their animated classics into live-action movies, with Beauty and the Beast receiving this treatment in 2017. To be fair, it was one of Disney’s better live-action remakes, only really suffering by having the wildly miscast Emma Watson (who was autotuned to high heaven) in the leading role of Belle. The rest of it wasn’t so bad though.
While some of Beauty and the Beast’s standing as one of the best animated films has been muted somewhat with the rise of Pixar and more awareness to Studio Ghibli, it doesn’t take away from what a delightful film Beauty and the Beast still is. The story and characters are still among Disney’s best, and the same can be said of the film’s animation and those ever-so catchy songs. Simply put, Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney Animation’s greatest achievements (I personally would consider it Disney’s best animated feature up until Frozen’s release in 2013). It’s a true Disney classic!
First thing’s first, I owe Ghostbusters 2 an apology. In a recent post, I described it as a “disappointing” sequel. I suppose, in an objective sense, that’s kind of true, seeing as Ghostbusters 2 was only a modest success, whereas the original was a decade-defining movie. But I spoke out of faulty memory. I hadn’t seen Ghostbusters 2 in years, and after you hear/read about how it wasn’t as good as the original Ghostbusters so often, I guess at some point I let that get the better of me. As I’m gearing up for Ghostbusters: Afterlife (a movie I have quite literally waited my whole life to see, given I was born the year of Ghostbusters 2’s release), I watched the original two Ghostbusters movies. And you know what? Ghostbusters 2 is actually a solid sequel. Maybe not an all-time great like the 1984 original, but Ghostbusters 2 is definitely better than it gets credit for.
Sure, Ghostbusters 2 has its faults: some story elements feel very loosely connected, the story of the Ghostbusters getting back together plays a little too close to the story of the formation of the Ghostbusters in the first movie, and that echoing is really felt in the third act, which feels a bit too familiar. There’s also that weird part with the disembodied heads in the subway which comes out of nowhere. Point being Ghostbusters 2 is a good movie that has its flaws, but it’s better than its reputation suggests. It just has the burden of being a good movie that follows-up a great one.
With that out of the way, there is one element of Ghostbusters 2 that stands out from its predecessor: it has something to say. While the original is one of my favorite films (and arguably the most quotable movie of all time), it is more about the comedy, the concepts and the entertainment. But Ghostbusters 2 has a message for its audience, and while it may be a bit overt, it’s so well meaning and earnest that it’d be hard to call it preachy.
In Ghostbusters 2, as the titular paranormal exterminators are slowly reforming, they discover a mysterious pink slime is taking over New York City. Meanwhile, at an art gallery, the spirit of a 16th century tyrant, Prince Vigo von Homburg Deutschendorf, begins to enter the world of the living through a painting, with his presence bringing about other specters as well.
It turns out that the slime is a physical manifestation of human emotion. Though the slime that’s building up under New York City is specifically the product of negative feelings: people’s anger towards one another, their contempt, frustrations, hostilities, and hatred. Vigo, the spirit of a wicked magician, is drawing strength from the presence of the negatively charged “mood slime,” allowing him to gain more and more power and influence in the physical world (though he plans to kidnap a baby and possess it to have a proper physical form).
The presence of the slime both creates and feeds off the negativity of people. When Ghostbusters (and friends) Ray Stantz and Winston Zeddemore (Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson) are exposed to it, they nearly come to blows. The negativity of the people of the city created the slime, and the slime in turn enhances that negativity. Hatred begets more hatred.
Later, the Ghostbusters learn that the slime can in fact be purified when exposed to positivity: love, friendship, hope, happiness, even song and dance. The presence of the “evil” slime isn’t entirely doom and gloom, and people can in fact reverse the negativity that they themselves created.
As Vigo gains in power, he can manipulate the negative slime to do his bidding, eventually sealing the art gallery with an impenetrable shield of negative energy so no one can interrupt his planned ritual to possess the aforementioned baby. To combat Vigo’s power, the Ghostbusters need to produce a massive amount of positivity in order to enter the art gallery. They end up using the purified “good” mood slime to animate the Statue of Liberty (“something that everyone in this town can get behind… a symbol“) as a means to instill hope and unity in the people of New York, blasting Howard Huntsberry’s “Higher and Higher” through loudspeakers for good measure.
Using the Statue of Liberty and the positivity it produces in people, the Ghostbusters break through the barrier into the art gallery. Although Vigo manifests, overpowering and immobilizing the Ghostbusters, the people throughout New York City, inspired and united, begin singing and embracing each other, weakening Vigo and forcing him to retreat into his painting. The Ghostbusters are then able to use the positive slime on the painting (in an admittedly disappointing final encounter) to seal off Vigo’s access to the physical world. Although the Ghostbusters get that last little moment of action, the real victory took place a few moments before then, when they instilled hope and happiness in the citizens of New York. It’s that positivity that destroyed Vigo’s power.
A few other creative works have had similar messages, that the very idea of good can save the day, but they are still pretty rare, and fewer still that feel genuine enough for their message to ring true (It’s a Wonderful Life and EarthBound are among the exceptions that come to mind). And it’s this optimistic, hopeful attitude that I feel propels Ghostbusters 2 into being a better film than it gets credit for (this, and the entertainment value).
Some may say that’s cheesy or naive (though by doing so, those same critics may be proving the movie’s point), but I think it’s a beautiful little message. One that resonates truer today than it did in 1989 when the film was released. In this day and age when it seems like people want any and every excuse to be angry at the world, hate on everything, and embrace cynicism and nihilism as some forms of intellectualisms, we could all learn a thing or two from something so purely optimistic. We’re willingly bringing about Vigo’s world. Let’s all try to be a little more like the Ghostbusters, piloting the Statue of Liberty and bringing out the best in each other.
Home Sweet Home Alone is a new Disney+ exclusive movie, and the sixth – yes, sixth – entry in the Home Alone franchise. The first two Home Alone films, released theatrically in the early 90s, have become holiday classics that people watch annually during Christmastime. They made Macauley Culkin a household name, as he starred as Kevin McCallister, a young boy who was accidentally left, well, home alone around Christmas. A duo of bungling burglars, Harry and Marv, tried to rob the McCallister home (and other nearby households) while the family was away for the holidays, only for Kevin to foil their efforts with a series of cartoonish booby traps that left Harry and Marv beaten and battered.
The original Home Alone was a massive hit. The immediate sequel was more of the same, but set things in the big city of New York. The sequel was less liked by critics, but audiences still embrace it as another annual viewing to this day.
After Macauley Culkin aged out of the role, you’d think the series would be good and done with. It wasn’t exactly a big fantasy franchise with a world of characters and deep mythology to explore. Kid beats up criminals at Christmas. That’s it. Audiences liked the first two, there didn’t need to be more.
But Hollywood being Hollywood, more Home Alones were made. They were various forms of standalone sequels and reboots, none of which featured anyone from the original cast. The third film was theatrically released, though after that it was straight to TV for the series. In this day and age of streaming services, it’s much less of a sting that Home Sweet Home Alone was released straight to Disney+, and in all fairness, it probably is the best installment since the first two films (but that’s a low hurdle to jump). Despite a solid effort, Home Sweet Home Alone still can’t escape the shadow of the first two beloved entries.
The story here is (what else?) a kid winds up being left home alone during Christmas, and has to fend off some burglars with some cartoonishly violent hijinks. Okay, I guess I should specify a little more, since the film at least tries to alter some elements of the formula.
In this entry, the kid is Max Mercer (Archie Yates), an English boy whose family has recently moved to the United States. Max and his mom (Aisling Bea) stop by an open house so Max can use the bathroom. The open house belongs to the McKenzie family, notably husband Jeff (Rob Delaney) and wife Pam (Ellie Kemper). The McKenzies are reluctantly selling their house (they haven’t even told the kids yet) as Jeff has recently lost his job, and Pam’s salary alone isn’t enough for them to keep their home. While Max is in the McKenzie house, he notices a box of old dolls, which Jeff inherited from his mother. Max and his mom note that the dolls are probably worth some money, particularly one malformed doll with an upside down head.
Jeff wishes his family could keep their home, and after doing some research on the dolls, realizes they are indeed worth good money, with the upside down-faced doll in particular being a rare misprint worth a small fortune. With that doll, the McKenzies can keep their home. The only problem is the doll has gone missing! Jeff suspects Max took the doll during his visit, and so tracks down the boy’s home. But by that point, everyone in the Mercer family has left on their vacation to Tokyo. Everyone, that is, except for Max, who fell asleep in a car in the garage to avoid all the noise of visiting relatives.
Through a typical Home Alone series of events, the Mercers are already on their way to Japan before they realize they’ve left Max behind. Meanwhile, Jeff and Pam, desperate to save their home, plan on breaking into the Mercer house in order to retrieve the missing doll, not knowing that Max is still inside. Max manages to overhear the McKenzies outside plotting their eventual break-in, and after misunderstanding a joke (Jeff mentions selling “an ugly little boy,” referring to the misprint doll), Max believes the McKenzies are planning to kidnap him. He wants to call the police, but fears his mother may get arrested for leaving him home alone, and so instead sets an elaborate series of booby traps in his house to beat the crap out of the McKenzies.
That’s kind of a bit of explanation for a Home Alone movie, don’t you think?
I suppose, to be fair, the movie is aiming for something more lighthearted, giving the “antagonists” a bit of sympathy so there can be a little heartwarming get-together once the misunderstandings are inevitably cleared up. It’s well intentioned, but the problem is making the “burglars” of a Home Alone movie into sympathetic characters works against the appeal of the franchise.
One of the reasons Home Alone appealed to young audiences is because the third act features a clever kid outsmarting some bad grownups. Though Kevin McCallister’s traps were often (cartoonishly) violent, you didn’t feel bad for laughing because Harry and Marv deserved it. They were jerks who broke into family homes and stole stuff during the Christmas season (with Marv going a step further and flooding the homes they stole from by clogging the sinks and turning them on full blast). They were simply bad guys. The audience delighted in seeing Harry and Marv get their comeuppance at the hands of Kevin McCallister. By contrast, Jeff and Pam McKenzie are a husband and wife simply trying to retrieve a family heirloom they think was stolen from them so they can save their family home. It’s a lot harder to laugh whenever Jeff and Pam get smacked in the face with a bag of flour. Or fall down a staircase. Or get their feet set on fire.
So, in a roundabout way, by trying to make Home Alone more family friendly (the kid isn’t in any real danger) they’ve actually made it less appropriate because now we’re laughing at the misfortunes of good people. Admittedly, I may be overthinking this a bit, but I do think Home Sweet Home Alone’s good intentions in this area are ultimately misguided for the material.
Something to note about Home Sweet Home Alone is that it actually does take place in the same continuity as the original two films. Kevin’s older brother Buzz McCallister is now a cop in Max’s neighborhood (with Devin Ratray reprising the role), and the Mercer family uses the “McCallister Home Security System.” The obvious implication being that Kevin grew up and started the home security company, which I found hilarious. The film isn’t overburdened with references to the original Home Alone movies, but what’s here is appreciated. Though it is a bit disappointing that Macauley Culkin didn’t have a cameo after rumors (and false confirmations) suggested otherwise ever since Home Sweet Home Alone was announced.
If I’m being honest, I expected much worse from Home Sweet Home Alone. Perhaps the overreactions of people in the age of social media simply made me fear the worst. But Home Sweet Home Alone is more bland and forgettable than it is outright horrible. Making the burglar “antagonists” sympathetic characters while still expecting us to laugh at the pain inflicted on them is the movie’s only egregious misstep. The rest is simply stuff we’ve seen done better in the first two movies. I admit I found some of the jokes to be funny, and Archie Yates is a cute kid who can carry the material (he was arguably the best part of Jojo Rabbit). Young audiences might get a kick out of the movie. It’s just that, of course, they’d be better off watching the original. Or even Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.