Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Stitch, Not on Time

Moana is not the only Disney-animated, Pacific-island-set film I recently saw. I'm 14 years behind on this, but I finally got around to watching Lilo & Stitch, the tale of an unruly young girl who befriends an even more unruly alien creature.

Lilo & Stitch is often said to be a bright spot in the midst of an otherwise lackluster period for Disney animation, a notion I'd probably support. Not from personal experience, though, because I haven't seen most of the Disney animated films from that decade. Yet Lilo & Stitch was consistently the only one that people ever seemed surprised that I'd missed.

I can see some of the appeal. The film is a good grafting of several quintessentially Disney elements into a new context. Absent/dead parents abound in Disney classics, for example, but it seems new and distinct to depict a young adult struggling to care for her child sister. Many Disney characters are dealing with poverty, but it's more impactful and current to actually see someone waiting tables to make ends meet and then, when that falls apart, scrambling to find a new job. Lots of Disney protagonists commune with animals and/or the natural world, but the island of Kaua'i is quite different from everything that came before.

Also, in this age of computer animation, this movie is a nice throwback. CG elements are still there (though far less obvious than in, say, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, from the decade before), but Lilo & Stitch is, by-and-large, drawn by hand. This is used to great effect in presenting various alien creatures. It's also nice to be able to compare the classic "Disney face" to the characters here, modeled with Pacific Islander features.

All that said, Lilo & Stitch is far from being one of Disney's all-time great films. The characters -- especially the alien ones -- are inconsistently written, spontaneously changing their behavior to advance plot or score a cheap joke. Unfortunately, Stitch himself is perhaps the biggest examples of this; the whole story is about his personality changing, but I feel like we never see any moments that would explain such a change.

I also feel there's a real clash in tones in the movie. On the one hand, you have the relative realism of the Hawaiian island setting, and the characters who live there and face real problems. On the other, you have all the alien material, which at times approaches almost Looney Tunes craziness. To me, "Lilo & Stitch" are a pairing that is often more oil and water than peanut butter and chocolate.

Overall, though, the movie is fairly entertaining, and better than most. I'd give it a B. I'm glad to have finally seen it, but it's not one I'd imagine watching again down the road.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Great (Well, Pretty Good, At Least) Dane

Almost every Oscar season has at least one film that, while excluded from the Best Picture race, is lauded for multiple performances. Most recently, The Danish Girl was one of those films. It tells the true story* of Lili Elbe, the first person** to undergo sex reassignment*** surgery.

Those various asterisks illuminate some of the reasons this film may have been excluded from Best Picture contention. First, * -- this story is fictionalized, based on a novel by David Ebershoff that took considerable liberties with the actual facts. Second, ** -- though much of the talk around this film anointed Lili Elbe as the "first" to undergo surgery, that also isn't factually accurate. Third, *** -- such surgeries are often called "gender confirmation" procedures in our more enlightened age, though some aspects of Lili's character in the film belie this more affirmative terminology.

If you head into the movie with eyes open, knowing it's not quite reality, and accepting that it may not be authentic to the experience of most modern transgender people, then the film is commendable on many levels. Seeing past those shortcomings might admittedly be a big ask; certainly, those issues could spark a worthy discussion of whether a largely positive on-screen representation (even if flawed) is to be praised and encouraged. It's a discussion I don't think I could do justice to here.

So instead, I will say that the movie does spin a moving tale, regardless of how much is fact and how much is fiction. The journey that Einar Wegener takes to become Lili Elbe is emotional, filled with highs and lows. And I also the Oscars were very right to single out the actors as key to making the movie work.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, and gives a strong performance. Praising Redmayne's work does lead to still more fair discussion points -- the appropriateness of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender character, and whether the century-old period setting of this story affects that question in any way. Regardless of whether you see no problem here, or think Redmayne's casting is as offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the fact remains that Redmayne's work here is excellent: soulful and sympathetic.

But Oscar also got it right in giving a nomination only to Redmayne, and giving an actual win, for Best Supporting Actress, to Alicia Vikander. That's because Vikander, as Einar's wife Gerda, gives an even stronger performance across the board. (And the only controversy there is that she was in the "Supporting" category for what is clearly a Lead role.) Gerda is an even stronger character, even more sympathetic. Vikander lands every moment of the emotional wringer her character goes through, trying to understand how to help the person she loves. As good as Redmayne may be in this movie, one could imagine other performers doing as well with the material. But I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else that could do what Vikander does here.

Ultimately, the audience for this movie is probably rather narrow. I say that not because it's about a transgender woman, but because it's a sometimes stilted period piece, very much about subtle and close-up acting. I'd give it a B+, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everybody.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Hobnobbing With Society

If you're a really long-time reader of the blog (and have a good memory to boot), you know that my reactions to Woody Allen movies have run the spectrum -- I've hated a few, been indifferent to many, and have loved a few. Now there's a new one to place on that spectrum, Café Society.

Set in the 1930s, Allen's newest film follows a young New Yorker who relocates to Hollywood in search of a change. He finds himself struggling to start a relationship with a woman who loves another man, and torn between the vast differences of his new home and his old one.

Café Society is a return to form for Woody Allen, in that the main character is absolutely a proxy for him. In his heyday, Allen would have played the part himself; these days, he serves instead as the narrator. Where other filmmakers might shy away from being so autobiographical when their lives are controversial, he boldly unfolds a story in which adultery and womanizing play more than incidental parts.

Separating the artist from the art is extra difficult when the Allen proxy character is embodied by Jesse Eisenberg, who takes his existing screen persona and muscles it that last step of the way into impersonation territory. Eisenberg is "doing" a young Woody Allen here. But he's not the only character who's hard to root for, and may in fact be among the more sympathetic people in the movie. In short, if you need your characters to be likeable, you can probably just stop here. This movie is not for you.

That said, the story does pick up steam in the middle, as it moves out of mere "slice of life" territory and settles into its actual plot: a love triangle with a splash of "comedy of errors" mistaken identity. It's helped along by some of the performances. Steve Carell plays a rich Hollywood producer as an interesting variation of his persona from The Office -- all the selfishness and unchecked emotion, but without the ineptitude or cluelessness. Parker Posey and Corey Stoll both cut loose and have fun with small supporting roles. And Kristen Stewart is interesting as the third point in the love triangle. This isn't the movie that will convince you she can act (for that, see Still Alice), but neither does she stand out as a weak link in the movie.

Ultimately, this lands somewhere among Woody Allen's average work. If you're willing to endure a slow story to see a great performance, Blue Jasmine is probably more your speed. If plot figures more heavily for you, even if there are no true standouts in the cast, then this probably gets the nod. I'd say it warrants a B- or so.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

"Lost" in Adaptation

You might recall my recent account of re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark (this time, with the score supplied live by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra). It shoved Raiders to the front of my mind, which in turn pushed me to watch a documentary I've had on my list for a while -- Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made.

Raiders! is the story of two best friends who in turn cajoled their friends into helping them create a shot for shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What makes this notable is that they did it as teenagers, pouring into it all their allowances and spare time over a seven-year period (from 1982 to 1989). In the present day, as adults, they've reunited to shot the one scene they'd never completed: the fight on the airfield.

As a documentary, Raiders! reflects on many intriguing topics. There's the passion of fandom, and how it can transport people of all ages away from the trials and tribulations of life. There's a coming of age component, and one example of how friends can drift apart over the years. There's a look at obsession, and the examination of how much a person is willing to risk to achieve a lofty goal.

Mostly, though, the documentary gets me quite curious to see the actual fan film itself. That's because the real appeal to all this is in what these kids were actually able to accomplish. I don't know about you, but I definitely went through a phase where I begged my parents to let me play with the camcorder so I could make my own rudimentary films. I know the scope and quality of those efforts, and I also know the attention span I had for sticking with any given one.

In the snippets of the teens' film that you see in the documentary, any of my childhood movie aspirations are put to shame. I mean, think about some of the amazing visuals Steven Spielberg packed into Raiders of the Lost Ark -- fleeing from a giant rolling boulder, a fist fight in the middle of a burning bar, an action sequence that sees the hero crawling over and under a moving truck. These kids actually did all this stuff! Quite unsafely in many cases, but they actually did it all. I mean, I can understand that they never shot the airplane sequence as children, but there are tons of other sequences they never should have been able to pull off either.

So ultimately, Raiders! (the documentary) is an oddly inspirational little tale about following your dreams, even if the specific dream in this case maybe isn't as inspiring. I'd grade it a B.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Deals With Our Devils

After several weeks off (but only days since my last review), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned last night with a new episode.

I'm not saying that Star Trek has the monopoly on "characters have been turned into 'ghosts' and everyone else thinks they're dead" story line. Still, The Next Generation did do that exact story, and did it very well. So I think another series is taking on a challenge in trying the same thing. S.H.I.E.L.D., being a far more serialized show with many irons in the fire, had other boxes to check, and this may have crowded out some of the deeper issues Star Trek was able to get at in their take.

For example, the notion that Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie might actually be dead never completely seemed to gel. Daisy didn't believe it from the jump. Even when things started to look grim (and dim) in the alternate dimension, Coulson and Fitz never really grappled with the possibility that they might not make it back. (Emotionally, I mean. The physical struggle with the vortex of darkness didn't really count.)

I guess, putting it another way, the couple of scenes that really did examine the emotions of the situation were fantastic, and I really wish there had been more of them. May's private breakdown (one actually shared, unknowingly, with Coulson) was a great moment about regret and putting off things until it's too late. And Fitz's meltdown at realizing that Simmons would have to hear about his "death" was strong; even with his life in peril, he was thinking more of her.

But speaking of Simmons, her subplot felt to me like an excess element that crowded out time where more of those deeper A story moments could have been found. I'm sure Marvel fans are geeking out over who was hatching from that terragenesis cocoon (if it was made explicit enough), or are geeking out over who it might be (if it was left vague). Either way, it seemed like a distraction in the midst of a life and death situation, and could easily have been introduced in a later episode. After all, between Eli and Ghost Rider and now Aida and her Darkhold knowledge, there are already plenty of ongoing plot balls being juggled without adding another.

The Ghost Rider material didn't quite work for me either. Having the Rider jump into Mack was a neat idea, but the payoff wasn't as exciting. So Robbie doubles down on a pact he's already made? So what? And if the Rider was capable of rescuing Robbie from the alternate dimension all along, why did it leave him in the first place? Wondering about these questions was more time I wish had been spent really grappling with the life-or-death premise at the core of the story.

But while I felt the subplots misfired a bit, I think the overall approach to the script was very strong. Alternating acts, first showing us scenes without the "ghostly" characters, and then revisiting things with them, was a great choice. The higher, meta layer of repetition was effective too -- first, you weren't sure exactly what happened to Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie, and then got to see; second, you got to speculate what those three were doing in the next batch of scenes you were watching, knowing that they'd be there. (If I'm comparing to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, this was a more sophisticated storytelling technique that really did bring something new to the party.)

I'd peg the episode at a B+ overall. If I found it at all disappointing, it was really just because I recognized potential for something truly exceptional that didn't quite get there. It was nevertheless a very solid hour of the show.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Catching Disney's Wave

Over the holiday weekend, I went to see Disney's newest animated feature, Moana. It was a triumph on many levels -- though I felt it didn't quite reach the heights set by Disney of late.

The movie absolutely continues Disney's push to tell more topical stories with more progressive characters. First, Moana is a welcome addition/revision to the stable of Disney princesses. As the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, she's "royalty." But as she is being groomed to lead the tribe herself, her destiny is far greater than to be an object of affection. (At the risk of giving a very minor spoiler, there isn't even a romantic subplot of any kind in the movie.) Second, the threat that spurs the whole plot into motion is climate change; Moana's lush island is dying, and her quest is to see a delicate natural balance restored.

A lot of things work well in service of these modern messages. For one, it's simply a gorgeous movie -- I think the most visually stunning Disney or Pixar has ever produced. The movie is stuffed full of fertile vegetation, mighty ocean waves, and menacing lava floes. There are bioluminescent creatures, a character with living tattoos that comment on the action, and scenes set in otherworldly dreamscapes. There are sequences that seem wholly original, and others that seem meticulously crafted to evoke recent pop culture titans like The Hobbit and Mad Max: Fury Road. The Thanksgiving release feels appropriate; this is a Thanksgiving feast for the eyeballs.

The characters also make a good impression. I've already noted the mold-breaking qualities of Moana herself (though I mention her again now to highlight the vocal work of Auli'i Cravalho). Moana also has a fun and memorable grandmother named Tala, voiced by Rachel House. Casting Dwayne Johnson as demigod Maui is a perfect use of his public persona, and a jumping off point for deeper things. And the animators surely had a field day with Maui, probably the most... well, animated Disney character since the Genie in Aladdin. Also harkening back to Aladdin (in this case, to the magic carpet and the monkey Abu), Moana includes a great non-speaking character in the rooster Heihei (proudly labeled by one of the movie's directors as "the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.")

It's harder for me to peg just what secret sauce was missing for the movie overall. I think one shortcoming -- and I'm sure some Hamilton fans will dispute me on this -- is the music. The songs of Moana are written by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. They definitely capture the Polynesian flavor of the story and advance the plot, but I don't feel they make a lasting impression. Forget "Let It Go" levels of earworminess, I don't even think there was a "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" in here. (Maybe Maui's self-congratulatory anthem "You're Welcome"?)

The movie might also be a touch too long. In rigid adherence to the hero's journey formula, Moana (the character) goes through perhaps one too many setbacks only to (of course) rebound. Or perhaps it's that the rebounding is sometimes too easy for you to have ever taken the setback all that seriously.

Still, whatever drawbacks Moana may have are minor. And I'd say the film outshines Disney's other effort this year, Zootopia. I give Moana a B+.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Good Samaritan

While I was on vacation in Orlando, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ran a new episode. Helpfully, from this blog's perspective, it hasn't run a new one since, giving me time to catch up before things get started again.

This was the "Ghost Rider origin story" episode. Specifically on those terms, it didn't feel like essential viewing. It came six episodes into the season, at a point when the show had done a thorough job of showing us what Robbie and his flaming-skulled alter ego were all about. I didn't really need a Ghost Rider origin story to fill in the gaps, unless that back story somehow had some unexpected elements.

Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the back story was instead very Marvel hero paint-by-numbers. We already knew about Robbie's commitment to his brother. We already knew he was seeking vengeance, and against whom. Really, the only added detail we got was that Robbie received his powers from, apparently, another Ghost Rider (as opposed to the Devil himself or some such). And that detail doesn't seem meaningful in any way at this point.

Also in the "doesn't seem meaningful" column was the revelation that Robbie's Uncle Eli is not an ally, but an enemy. In the ill-defined Macguffin that is the Darkhold, that felt to me not like a revelation, but a given. Whatever this Darkhold thing is or isn't, we've watched it pretty consistently corrupt everyone it comes into contact with. That Eli would be corrupt too isn't a disappointment, but it isn't a surprise either. Yet it was played as though it was meant to come as a shocking twist.

But fortunately, the episode wasn't all about flashbacks, and a lot of what happened in the present day was more compelling. Director Mace is quickly being moved into antagonist territory. It makes sense, because while he's maybe a bit simplistic in his views, you can understand why he thinks Coulson is doing bad things here. I'll be interested to see if the show tries to bring Mace around, or if we're just on an express train to all-out opposition.

Even more interesting for the future is the episode's cliffhanger ending. Fitz and Coulson were caught up in the mystical explosion. (Well, so was Robbie, but one might assume him to be immune to any ill effects.) What exactly is going to happen to them? Are they ghostly now too, or will something else happen to them? Well it be the same or different for each of them? The story could take off in almost any direction from here, and two characters who have been around since the beginning are right at the center of it.

This episode wasn't a favorite of mine, but I am interested to see where things go from here. I give it a B-.