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Showing posts with label all-about-animation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label all-about-animation. Show all posts

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) | Short Review

I’m sorry, but this one kinda made me angry. So, here’s some quick thoughts. 

The good:
Dom (Cedric Joe) and all the video game design stuff directly related to him was interesting. Hopefully it encourages some people to get into design.
Some extras and animators got to dress up as or work on characters they love, so hopefully they had a fun time.
Some jokes work, and the ball playing has some freshness to it when the awful script allows it. The NBA Street series, last checked, has been dormant for a while. Maybe this’ll change that.

The bad:
The overall writing is just exposition, clichés, and WB trumpeting.
The crossovers are pointless and wasted to the point where it makes me wish DC and other WB subsidiaries were independent entities. 

His performance is ok, but it’s upsetting how the charisma is sucked out of Don Cheadle. It’s replaced with Al-G Rhythm's senseless motivation | Copyright 2021 WB

A comic with Batman (DC) and the Ninja Turtles (IDW) proves that not everything has to be under one roof for a crossover to work to at least some degree. With iron-clad ownership, a segment like Bugs and Batman fails in every respect because, in this case,  it's part of such an overstuffed project and they don't develop any real screen time together.

Something similar happens with Lola (Zendaya) that is interesting. She's just kind of there. That's better than how she was treated in the original movie...but then why cast such a phenomenal actor for a nearly do-nothing role?

When it comes to the writing, just about everyone involved should be ashamed.

2/5

If you already have HBO Max, watch this after you've exhausted the extensive library HBO Max Space Jam: A New Legacy is pushing on you. 
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Friday, July 2, 2021

America: The Motion Picture (2021) | Short Review

From Netflix, "a chainsaw-wielding George Washington teams with beer-loving bro Sam Adams to take down the Brits in a [raunchy,] tongue-in cheek riff on the American Revolution." It has a strong cast, as noted below, it's written by Dave Callaham, directed by Matt Thompson, and two of the producers are Phil Lord and Chris Miller. One of the actors in it is Bobby Moynihan. Unfortunately, I misspelled his name when modifying the poster. Sorry, Bobby. 

 
Impressive credentials | Copyright 2021 Netflix, but modified by me using Inpaint and Gimp

This could've been really good, if it was a series of shorts, or if the humor and world stuck to some ground rules. The running gags could've been a great start to that, since they were some of the funniest parts of the movie. This is overselling it, but the use of Bible verses is best explained as inspired. 

If the jokes and story were as scattershot as the movie's world, this would be an unsalvageable, non-sensical mess. Instead, the whole movie can be sized up in the first couple minutes. Simply put, it's very dumb fun that should be watched after a really crappy day. To say more could potentially spoil some jokes.

The animation is by Combo Estúdio. It's worth bringing up, since this is a Floyd County production, and I was wondering if it was the same studio that animates Archer. It's not, that's Fox Television Animation and Radical Axis, but these guys have also done Super Drags for Netflix. Standing still, the art style looks a little blocky and reminds me of Venture Brothers or the new Batman: The Long Halloween. It moves pretty smoothly though, and this is the kind of movie where an unappealing art style might've been on the table during production. Even if the characters ended up not looking quite right, America still gives us Imperial Walkers that look like double-decker buses, and you can't beat that. 

2.5/5, and 3/5 if this attracts a wide conservative audience. They may see something in America: The Motion Picture that speaks to them, and, if it happens, I'd love to know what that is. Also this most likely has no sequel plans, but it's set up for an equally enjoyable second round.

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

The best thing I heard about Mitchells vs The Machines when previews and posters started coming out is that it looked like it wasn't going to go all-in on technology being evil. I'm happy to report that that's true. Instead, Mitchells vs The Machines goes all-in on the visuals, and that's surprisingly not always a great thing, no matter how masterfully it's done. 

From the official Netflix summary, "A robot apocalypse put the brakes on their cross-country road trip. Now it's up to the Mitchells - the world's weirdest family - to save the human race." The trip was to give the family one last bonding experience before Katie (Abbi Jacobson, from Broad City) goes off to film school, as she's anxious to get away from her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), who just doesn't fully understand her passions or how society at large has become so screen-centered. The three other big parts of the family are matriarch Linda (Maya Rudolph), younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda), and pug Monchi (Doug The Pug, linked for convenience).

The movie is written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe (both writers on Gravity Falls and Disenchantment), produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Kurt Albrecht, and it was set to be a Sony Animation/Columbia Pictures release before Covid-19 made them sell the distribution rights to Netflix. So, Sony Animation, Lord, and Miller, that's why this movie is as off-the-wall and colorful as it is. However, this is quite different in its look and feel.

It's incredibly fast-paced, and it very rarely sits and breathes. For a movie with a smartphone focus, it makes a lot of sense to occasionally cut to a semi-random YouTube video as quickly as we go to them just because something popped into our heads. It's not a kid to adult thing, it's a generational and tech shift that we're all adjusting to. And we always will, as each shift and advancement is leaps and bounds greater than the one before, and it always comes with new communication skills to adapt to. I'm in my (late) 20s and don't fully understand how my younger cousins use some of the apps that they enjoy, but the point is being open to those new things and learning from my family. That's what this movie is about. So with the big lesson out of the way, let's talk about why it works so wonderfully, the characters and the humor.

Stylized Columbia Pictures Logo
It's always a good early sign when this lady gets funky | Copyright 2021 Sony & Netflix

Katie is the best kind of film student and (future) auteur. She loves learning about the process and technical aspects, she uses her shorts to speak from the heart, and has no fear. And Rick is kinda the best kind of concerned parent, when it comes to this. He doesn't fully understand her videos, the industry or those technical aspects, but he does understand it's competitive as hell and a tough way to make a living, especially in a major city. As someone who crashed and burned a year into studying animation, switched to business, and just does film stuff for fun, Rick is right to be concerned. The difference between my situation and Katie's isn't that Katie can draw and will be a few steps ahead of her classmates, but it's that my parents were aware that failing in early adulthood is okay and there's plenty of room to pivot. He thinks a setback could be catastrophic, and her experiencing that scares him because he's a pretty awesome dad. That's not something I thought I'd say about a character voiced by Danny McBride. Before getting to him, it's worth noting this movie has an even-handed say on film school. Very simply, take it or leave it, depending on the person and what they want to specialize in. Film school is if you want to be on-set and learn how to collaborate, and self-teaching is for people like me who don't get involved in production.

From early previews, it looked like Rick would go full-Ron Swanson and be voiced by Nick Offerman. And they can do that without those characters being overly similar, but it'd still probably be distracting. Instead McBride is pretty unrecognizable. It's not just that Rick is sweet, but it's a complete change, as his accent largely drops, he's more timid in intimidating situations, and any trace of something like bravado is reserved for mountain-man and dad joke moments. Those moments are great. I hope he, or some piece of the cast, at least gets an Annie nomination for creating this incredibly lived-in family dynamic. Hopefully it's revealed that a lot of the recordings were done at the same time. 

The humor kind of reminds me of watching Storks, and that reminded me of 2010s Cartoon Network. What I said then is "No one gets society like Warner Brothers Animation," as they handle everything from technology, to representation, to millennial culture, and more. Sony Animation can be added to that list; they put a huge emphasis on making jokes character-driven. One of my favorite little ones is the justification of the slow-motion walk after an explosion. Being like Katie, and having a camera, is all the justification you need...and how many opportunities are there to do that with other people. It's much more badass with a group. The explosion, surprisingly is one of the visually restrained moments of the movie, unlike when Sony and Warner Brothers had two stunning ones in Storks. Efforts were put into a million little moments instead of a few big ones, and the payoff is much larger...possibly too large. 

Painstaking efforts were put into making Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse look and move like a comic book. So this has to be made clear, those same painstaking efforts were put into making Mitchells look like a cross between a phone screen, that's opened to Instagram or Snapchat, and a lightly done anime. Filters and social media stickers are used a lot in this movie. It's not like it's just for fourth-wall breaking moments, but it's stitched right into the movie. Since so much of that is 2D, it really pops, sometimes more than the computer-animated components. That's what Spider-Verse had going for it but a bit more scaled back.

This is on top of the break-neck speed Sony Animation has become known for, so the results can be quite taxing to the eyes, especially during the action-packed climax. At nearly two hours, cutting ten or twenty minutes would've helped with late-stage burnout, but in a movie like this there's no telling what could've been incidentally lost.  

Re-watching the movie for this review, and pausing let the details really sink in, like a lot of the movies that inspire Katie being part of the K Collection. I'd like to think that it's personally made for her, or it's this universe's version of the Criterion Collection, similar to how they also have a store named Good Get. Sony itself seems to lack a knockoff when it comes to their headphones and cameras, of course. 

Sony Product Placement 1Sony Product Placement 2
Creativity and a great story in exchange for some bill-paying product placement can be a pretty fair trade | Copyright 2021 Sony & Netflix

This is an odd way to recommend the movie, but I think one of the best ways to test it out is to watch the first ten minutes or so, and if the visuals are straining, consider turning your screen off and just listening to it with the movie's audio-description settings for the blind. If the viewing experience is too nontraditional, try reading the script because the story is very well-written. While better together, every element of the movie stands on its own. 

One last thing, seriously, say please and thank you to your Alexas/Siris/Cortanas. It sounds ridiculous, but it reinforces our P&Qs, and it's a good way to teach manners and basic behaviors to children. The fact that that never happens in this movie, even after meeting good machines, is a major knock against the movie and a weird oversight. It's a disconnect in the movie formerly titled Connected.

4/5

Note: I highly recommend listening to Mike Rianda's interview with the Next Best Picture's Matt Neglia. What struck me is when Rianda talked about how the visual style directly relates to Katie's filmmaking style. Without spoiling the interview, stuff like that adds a lot both to the movie itself, its development, and what we can expect from Rianda and, possibly, Rowe next. NBP's review of the movie can be found here. I really look up to these guys, and they put Promising Young Woman on my radar like a year before it even came out, so this is the least I can do as a fan who wanted to return that favor. CinemaWins did a fantastic video on the movie, too.

Finally, if you are like Katie, please look into film school and the free filmmaking resources available to you. Even if you want to teach yourself, a school's curriculum can provide a helpful learning path. Katie taught herself Photoshop, and you can learn free programs like Gimp (free Photoshop), Openshot (video editing) and Blender (animation and video editing). Finding the right beginner tutorial or starting point is tough because everyone learns differently, but once you find it, you'll pick these tools up in no time. 

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Monday, March 8, 2021

Lava (2021)

In Lava, "Deborah, a lonely tattoo artist, endeavors to save herself and her town from an alien invasion. The aliens come in the form of large cats, cackling witches, and never-ending snakes; what's more, these dangerous invaders have harnessed the media as a means to hypnotize humanity into submission. Deborah must learn to resist their control and convince others to do the same" (Rock Salt Releasing). The movie is directed by Ayar Blasco, it is co-written by Ayar Blasco and Nicolas Britos, and it stars, among others, Janeane Garofalo and Cedric Williams. It is based on a comic by Salvador Sanz.

So, I had to dig a little into Lava to review it, which is something I try not to do. It's just one of those ones where it's hard to pull much out of it apart from the art style. So, let's start there. It's a very flat and simple style. The animation can be a little stiff, but movement is far from lifeless. Little touches, like the secondary motion of hair moving/reacting, give the feeling that as much care as possible was put into the animation and world, it just had to be allocated as best as possible. I really appreciated how this shined through in the background environments, and a few other places. A full-body blush of embarrassment isn't something you see in cartoons these days, so it's sweet to see something like that brought into contemporary adult animation. Along with some funny logos and titles, like Gain of Clones, that reminded me of the comic Sex Criminals, there were also WinRAR and VLC logos on a character's computer. The people who made this movie know and live the culture they are talking about, Generation X-ish geeks/nerds who are in their 20s-30s. Overall, they're very-well portrayed, but that really just comes out when the when the movie occasionally picks up steam. We'll get to that in a minute. 

Lava makes me less scared to get a tattoo, and that's an accomplishment. The sound design is a big part of that, and just shows that a lot of thought went into crafting a lot of what's on-screen, although the "why" of everything is something we'll get to.

Lava

Lucy Daughter of the Devil
The art style that Lava (Above) reminds me of is Lucy, Daughter of the Devil's (Below) | Above is Property of Warner Media. Below is Property of Rock Salt Releasing.

The look also is similar to a lot of classic flash videos. Where Lava falls short of even them though is in the lip syncing, but that's probably because it was re-dubbed in English. It just looks a little too exaggerated when lines don't match up, but that also positively lends itself to the ridiculous feel of the film.

At under 75 minutes, this should feel like a quick watch, but it wasn't. Lava, unfortunately, flows about as slowly as the real thing typically does. There seems to be two big problems with Lava. First, character interactions and relationships rarely have a lot of weight to them. Second, the film's editing is incredibly dry and static. The best scene in the movie is one where all cards are on the table and we know where Deborah (Garofalo), her roommate Nadia, and Samuel, who's into Deborah, are in relation to each other, as far as who is/isn't interested in whom. I think it stood out because it was more drawn out than most of the quick chats in the movie. It leads to something great later in the movie, where Deborah and Nadia's relationship grows. The movie has a solid LGTB+ moment, but how people react to them explicitly highlighting the moment may annoy some people. Lava's editing in between sequences is to cut to black and just stop for a second. Once or twice music bridged the gap, but it just felt so lacking that it had to be brought up. That's, apparently, a very tricky cut to pull off right. Luckily, there are some things about the movie that are nailed incredibly.

With that solid grasp of, as mentioned, "Generation X-ish geeks/nerds who are in their 20s-30s" comes a solid grasp of the crap they put up with. The takes some solid jabs at the business side of the entertainment industry, and it's through more than a tattoo of Mickey Deborah does for a client. Employee burnout is shown and how various types of studios and production studios can wreck someone's creativity is shown too. Knowing when to walk away from that kind of environment is a rough analogy, or metaphor(?),  that can be pulled out of Lava, but it's rough because it's also walking away from a probable apocalypse. It doesn't work when trying to apply the message to something like current politics, but the relatively small-scale of Lava doesn't make that a lasting issue. All-in-all, it's incredibly rough, but with it's choice moments. For every silent cut to black, there's an interesting tattoo scene or blink-or-you'll-miss-it reference. 

3.25/5

It's certainly not for everyone, but people who love this style, or at least grew up around it, will find something to enjoy. That's actually a similar conclusion I arrived to with a movie called Unicorn Store, but its feel was more 2000s to mid 2010s quirky/indie. Just wanted to throw that comparion out there because the return to simplicity, in any and all aspects right now, is a welcome one. It's a knock against the Lava to say try to view it in chunks, but it may warm a few extra people up to it. And try the comic, too. I haven't yet, but this really feels like it plays a lot better as a book. 

A screener of this movie was provided to me by TriCoast and Rock Salt Releasing. Original reports of Rock Salt picking up the movie come from Variety. I was not compensated for this review. 

Lava Promo Poster
Promotional Poster | Property of Rock Salt Releasing 
Rock Salt Releasing will release Lava onto various digital streaming platforms for pre-sale on 2/22 and on 3/15/2021 (Amazon, InDemand, iTunes, Google Play, DirecTV, AT&T, Vimeo on Demand, FANDANGO) in both English & Spanish.

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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Harley Quinn: Season 2 (2020)

One complaint I had about the first season of Harley Quinn is that "some episode endings seemed a little rushed so that they could save pieces of an arc for the rest of the season." With the show established that's no longer an issue, and it's able to go into the second season expanding on what it does best. Story arcs are written tighter, many characters from the year before are given additional depth, some new ones are given fantastic introductions, and the jokes just keep coming. Unfortunately, some characters feel sidelined at best, and at worst others are just painfully underwritten. The action and animation is still largely the same and feels like it's on the lower-end, but that's not a real problem. It's a mixed bag, if you dig through it too much, but odds are you're going to really like what you see. 

This season is cleanly divided into a couple neat stories. There's Harley (Kayley Cuoco) taking control of a divided Gotham, one villain-controlled territory at a time, and then there's the fallout from the volatile shifts in power. The first part is pretty clear roadmap to get people back into the swing of things, as each villain takedown gets an episode. Personally, I really needed this since binging shows can leave the details of the previous season a little fuzzy. A season recap, even as a bonus extra on the show page, would've been even better, but we're all just counting our blessings this year.

Harley Quinn Season 2 Promo Image
Harley's Progress (Season 2 Promo Image) | Copyright 2020 Warner Media

Old characters are fleshed out, new ones get proper intros, and the show is able to experiment even more with just about everyone. It's not everyday that Nora Fries (Rachel Dratch) is given the opportunity to have character outside of her husband (Alfred Molina), let alone...move or talk. In fact, the "additional story," in Arkham Knight may be the only other example. Other great examples include Christopher Meloni's Jim Gordon. As much as I loved him last season "flipping the Bat Signal on-and-off [for emotional support]," seeing him actually get some of that support through his daughter (Brianna Cuoco, Kayley's sister) was even better. He even cleans himself up, albeit too quickly, "in a montage where we skip past the hard parts of beating an alcohol addiction." Taking a little more time with Jim's journey would've been great, but still, it honestly was unexpected either way, since characters outside of the main ensemble are not treated seriously all that much in the first place. It may be growth from the creators, and it holds a lot of promise of things to come. I still believe this particular Gordon and Batman (Diedrich Bader) should have more time to shine, but Harley Quinn isn't the place for it. Some characters have a long way to go, in this regard. This version of Two Face (Andy Daly) is a serious letdown, thanks to shallow characterization in a mostly filler episode. 

This is my main black mark on the season. "All the Best Inmates Have Daddy Issues" is midway through the season, and it's about Harley's time in Arkham as a psychiatrist, and it does something I had a problem with in Solo: A Star Wars Story. "Some of these references unnecessarily setup the original trilogy, or foreshadow it in a way that's more like fortune-telling." And with characters many know very well already from other media, it just doesn't feel like it's doing anything really new with them. All these interpretations may have just backed the writers into a corner, and that's understandable, but in that case a less-is-more approach would've done the trick. Joker, who is very well-crafted by Alan Tudyk, asks "You wanna know how I got these emotional scars?" It'll make people either chuckle or groan, but at least it's just one line. This unscarred Harvey Dent constantly refers to the citizens of Gotham as voters, and it gets old quick. Making him one dimensional is one thing, but at least give him some kind of creativity to go along with it. It's like that acid also kicked the vocabulary section of his brain into action, too. On the bright side, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) revealing why she thinks so little of humanity does a lot for her as a character and propels her, Harley, and the show to a fantastic rest of the season. 

The action and animation could still use a touchup, and that might've actually happened in the last couple episodes. Starting out though, there's just stupid little errors I noticed, like someone drinking something, but then the same amount is in the glass in the next shot. Toward the end though, there are some fun arena-type fights. The GCPD taking on Darkseid's (Michael Ironside) parademons, for this show, is a matchup made in heaven. The highlight, however, has to be Batman getting his own version of Tony Stark's Extremis armor, complete with his own J.A.R.V.I. S-like companion. First, it gives Alfred (Tom Hollander...so, so close) a much-needed break from Bruce's shenanigans. Second, it leads to a fight with Bane (James Adomian) and some thugs that includes flight and lightning punches, and those are always great things. Still, even if that flash was throughout the season, it wouldn't compete with the show's humor. 

Harley and Ivy looking like regular people
Remember, they both had to put a ton of makeup on to achieve this look. It's a great detail | Copyright 2020 Warner Media

For last season, I said "the jokes had a certain South Park quality to them, and that's not just due to the MA rating of the series. It's in the little things, too." That actually might just be strong sitcom humor in general, since I ran across Josh Weinstein's study of Simpsons jokes, recently. Whatever the case, for me, that off-the-cuff clean humor feels like Harley's secret weapon. Stuff like Bane going for one of the open cushy office chairs, now that other villains are incapacitated, and then being shut down for "honorary purposes" and forced to sit on a crappy folding chair. Last time, I said it was just a good way to break up the more mature material. This time, with that joke sowing the seeds of Bane's rivalry with other villains, I'm calling it character-building. This quickly found its identity. With it knowing exactly what it is, and a confirmation of a third season, it feels like it can run straight ahead into what's next. There's just some tiny bumps along the way to smooth out. 

So, there's a lot that's not being covered in this review for plot reasons. Look forward to the shakeups that'll be explored further in the future.  Instead of that, and because the basic circumstances leading to this review. There's just a couple little things to add as a wrap-up. This character, and her associates, was one of the major pieces of fiction I kept coming back to during this horrible fucking year. There's three other posts here (1, also linked above) (2) (3), plus a little something just two paragraphs down. Maybe it's because of the (almost) guaranteed humor, because Birds of Prey might've been the last thing I saw in an (indoor) theatre, or because that movie helped me grow as a hobbyist video editor? It could be a combo of these things, but whatever the case, she and her cronies helped a lot. Knowing that this review is how I may have wanted to cap off 2020 was something to hold onto through quarantine and recovering from fucking heart surgery (valve replacement in March). 

So, with all that said, I'm giving this season a 4/5.

Similar to last time, HBO Max may still be doing some kind of free trial or starting discount to help promote Wonder Woman 1984. So if you can watch the season, and Zendaya's show Euphoria because I just want to throw that out there, without a major financial commitment, definitely go for it. Finally, there's one last thing. Doing a full write up on it is a little tough because I have trouble smoothly jumping back and forth between all these interpretations of the characters sometimes, and reconciling them with each other, but if you love the character in general, please check out the graphic novel Harleen by Stjepan Sejic. This is a version of Dr. Quinzel, emphasis on doctor, and the clown you've probably never seen before, and the slow burn approach to Harley's transformation builds upon the wonderful introduction from character creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Hearing Harley in your head without the resonance of Cuoco, Strong, Sorkin, or Robbie may not sound "right," but I promise you the voice Sejic gives her is a long time in coming, and it doesn't take away from those wonderful portrayals in the slightest.

Harleen Graphic Novel
Harleen Cover | Copyright 2019-2020 Warner Media

And give Sejic's other work a shot too, but just keep in mind it's usually made with a mature audience in mind, and discretion is advised. 

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Emancipation of Harley Quinn | Birds of Prey Horror Style Trailer

Update: Winners of the Halloween/Horror contest can be seen here. Sadly, I didn't place, but there's always next time. These guys, really all of us, did fantastic work. The whole community, on and off reddit, always does. 


I'm definitely taking a break from videos after this. I need to get back to basics. 

At the end of my Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) review, I said there was "a depth given to Harley Quinn that hasn't been seen since her beginnings on Batman The Animated Series." What made me think of that was her abuse by The Joker and the fear that a breakup in this movie would lead her to replacing him with Roman Sionis. It's definitely a viable option for the character and film, and the filmmakers demonstrate that it could literally be triggered by a slap. At least, that's where my mind immediately went in the theatre. Please read more for a bit more info on how this was cut together and a "Thank You" section.

Thanks, once again, to the FanTrailer community, I got to explore that for their Halloween/Horror contest. And thanks to the Blender community on reddit and their contests, 3d models I made of Harley's weapons were thrown in for good measure. Animation was added just for this though. If you're curious about Blender or 3d art, please leave a comment or message if you'd like help getting started. Same goes with editing, of course, especially since Blender is one of many free editors out there...although this was done with Final Cut Pro. 

Speaking of the theatre, I'm so glad this was one of the last ones I got to see before all hell broke loose. If Hollywood immediately halted all production and releases in March, this would probably be in the Top 5 of 2020.

While it worked for me, the movie and actual marketing for it were both a bit all over the place. So, besides creating this "romantic" abusive relationship between Harley and Roman, I also wanted to try to re-focus everything a bit. The diamond weirdly wasn't mentioned in the official trailers, so it became a trailer plot point, and this largely replaced the focus on The Birds of Prey. That's why the title change happened, too. Probably not the right move for WB to make, but that's why this community exists, to play with fun ideas. 

Joining in for the fun this time are Harrison and, once again, TheMarvelStark. Harrison made sure the music, which I really just put down and didn't edit to this time (thank goodness) had a huge impact on the overall video. Based on his work, incorporating music well appears to be his specialty. TheMarvelStark gave me a full workup of technical improvements and suggestions. They're both great editors, please check out their channels!

This video, and others are collected, on-site, here.
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Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Addams Family (2019)

When I reviewed Storks I said, "No one gets society like Warner Brothers Animation." To add to that, almost no one gets joke-a-second animation like MGM. Sony's Pictures Animation would be one of the other studios that gets this, since it animated Storks for WB, and they do the Hotel Transylvania and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies from start to finish. While the stretchiness and exaggerated expressions of those characters aren't in this, the spirit of the jokes, and movie as a whole, is a mix of 90s Addams Family and cartoons like Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood.

The movie's plot is as standard as it gets, but it was used to deliver some great humor, so let's get into it. Summarized by IMDB, "The eccentrically macabre family moves to a bland suburb where Wednesday Addams' (Chloë Grace Moretz) friendship with the [normal] daughter (Elsie Fisher) of a hostile and conformist [HGTV-like personality (Allison Janney)] exacerbates conflict between [Wednesday and her mother Morticia (Charlize Theron)." Also, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) is preparing Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) for his rite of passage ceremony, The Mazurka, which will be attended by their extended family. So, of course, it's parents letting kids be themselves and kids compromising. It's basic stuff. This plot, luckily, is elevated by a screenplay from Matt Lieberman, and Sausage Party directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, who plays Lurch as well. 

Speaking of Sausage Party, their animation team at Nitrogen Studios was notably exploited. Nitrogen was acquired by Cinesite, and Cinesite's the credited animation studio on this project, so hopefully, the acquisition led to a change in corporate culture and better working conditions. What is clear is that the animation in The Addams Family is a lot more polished, even if there's a step backward in some design choices. The final shots in Sausage Party didn't look final but more like lighting and rendering were still being tested. It's not bad by any means, but there's certain student film feel to it that is just off the mark from the Pixar aesthetic they wanted. 

The Addams Family is brighter and prettier for the most part, but also that "bland suburb" lives up to its name and The Mazurka doesn't look as much fun as The Mamushka of the 90s. So, the townspeople look like stock characters from an Illumination movie. No actual offense intended toward Illumination's visuals, they're okay. It's just that creepiness and kookiness that Cinesite developed for the main characters, by very faithfully capturing how they've looked in comic strips, should've extended to the background characters a little bit. It would've made up for the suburbia plot being something of a rehash of the first Hotel Transylvania. A lot of effort did go into these visuals, but that $24m budget possibly stopped them from going all the way with it. Another possible example of this limitation is with the Mazurka itself. It has a spotlight lighting style like the big circus number in Madagascar 3, but it's not nearly as big as that, partly for story reasons, and it feels like a mismatch. Seeing more of the spectators throughout the whole thing may have helped. Mazurka to Mamushka, by the way, is going to be the only real point of direct comparison because it is the one place where this update should have been superior. 

Speaking of direct comparisons, all characters are brought to life well by the cast, but there's a surprising few who are worth mentioning: Pugsley, Grandmama (Bette Midler), Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), and Fester (Nick Kroll). Short and sweet, Pugsley and Grandmama are given a lot of personality that I haven't seen before in past interpretations, and it really gave the movie a reason to...well...exist. Janney has played a character like Needler before, as the kangaroo in Horton Hears a Who, but she's a lot less insufferable this time around. So, that's an improvement. I expected the worst from Kroll's Fester because Kroll has, with exceptions, a disgusting and crass filmography, but he was pretty restrained in this and the character had some great jokes. Gomez, Morticia, and Wednesday are as perfectly cast and played as expected, of course.

Finally, to wrap things up, I'm just going to pick out a couple of jokes that I liked. The opposite day dialogue and stuff that's been part of Addams Family can be confusing and hit-or-miss, and it is in this movie too, but the delight of newlywed Gomez and Morticia saying "we hit something" after crashing into Lurch with their car set a solid tone for the remaining eighty-ish minutes of movie left. Most of the humor won't be dated, except for the It joke in the trailer, and those that are still may bring a chuckle, like a devil character lighting his head on fire before proclaiming that the Mazurka is "gonna be lit." The Mazurka wasn't as lit as I wanted it to be, but the entire movie was more fun than I thought it would be. 

3.5/5 

By default, that makes the 90s version and the sequel at least 4/5

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Superman vs The Elite (2012)

Note: Thank you to Russell Hartman for previewing this review for accuracy.
 

The classic version of Superman is hard to come by, especially on-screen. Now, my stance on the DCEU is that Snyder was going on a journey to the blend of Clark and Kal-El that we’re familiar with and love, and his cut of the Justice League should prove that. If I’m wrong about that though, or you feel the damage has already been done with the snapping of Zod’s neck, then I recommend Superman vs The Elite.


Superman vs The Elite pits Superman (Justice League's George Newbern) against a team of vigilantes intent on acting as judge, jury, and executioner. What makes this a challenge isn’t just that they’re at times more than evenly matched for The Man of Steel, but their methods quickly become not just accepted but popular with the public. Even as understandable as that may be for some, seeing it through Clark’s eyes is scary and depressing. The Elite’s championing of chaos and anarchy comes at the expense not just of due process, but humanity. This movie is directed by Michael Chang, adapted by Joe Kelly, and based on his Action Comics #775 issue "What So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way.”

 

So, what sticks out about this movie immediately, especially during the first viewing is the art style. It’s pretty cartoony-looking, especially for a DC animated movie. It’s similar to the original comic but pushed a little more. Once you get used to it, it’s great. It makes Superman look older than he probably is, like in his 40s or 50s, and that’s very fitting for a story where he feels a bit out of place with the rest of the world. Zack Snyder makes him feel out of place by making him more of an alien, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Chang does it by making him feel more human. The style, by the way, allows for fluid animation, and great fight scenes (describe some fights), on top of some already interesting visuals. 

 

Superman's full strength and range of powers are taken advantage of in ways that are a bit unexpected, like a sonic scream, but it's one of the Elite members, who steals that show. Menagerie (Melissa Disney) is a mixed bag of a character. Her hitting on Superman comes across as overly off-putting, since this version of Clark is so wholesome and has a great relationship with Lois (Pauley Perrette), but her powers help make up for that. She has these Medusa-like snakes, or eels or leeches, that she can shoot out of her body, but she also uses them as hearing aids and binoculars. She felt like a more powerful and creative version of Poison Ivy. While that's probably not true if they faced off, the movie makes a good case in the moment. 


Superman and Lois
Superman, Lois Lane, and the Strong, Stan Smith-ish, Jawline of Justice | Warner Brothers, 2012


Besides Menagerie's forwardness, the only other problem with the movie is just how fast the Elite are applauded for their actions. People who watch these direct-to-video movies regularly are probably used to the fast-pace needed to cram everything into about ninety minutes, but the movie actually has a good buildup scene that just plays a moment too late. To give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, the swept-up nature of how people treat The Elite is necessary to bring out the film's themes. So, how do those play out?

 

While this came out well after September 11th, and issue #775 came out six months before, the response to terrorism is central to the story. What tips Superman over the edge is when The Elite kill the leaders of two warring nations during, albeit highly likely to break down, peace talks.

 

Their leader, Manchester Black's (Robin Atkins Downes) philosophy is "The only logical thing to do is slot the whole McGill and start over." In some ways, it's the Adrian Veidt/Utilitarian approach from Watchmen, but this movie makes that less of an abstract concept. The Elite aren't monsters, but they still did this in an up-close and personal manner, as opposed to Veidt's method of flipping a switch half a world away. Adding violence, pain, and suffering, at least as much as possible in a movie aimed at teens and pre-teens, the consequences become more real. The need for more than just the No-Kill rule, but a standard of humanity even when faced against the worst of it, becomes more real. That's what this Superman embodies. That's why some still look at a punishing Batman, even with that rule firmly in place, with a raised eyebrow.

 

So, that's why this is one of the best Superman movies out there. The way to make someone as overpowered and genuinely good at heart as Superman interesting is to find a way to challenge that, and Superman vs The Elite may provide a clear answer for the hero's situation, but that doesn't make it an easy one. I honestly believe that's what Zack Snyder was going for in that aforementioned pivotal scene of Man of Steel, but something got lost in translation, and that version of the character hasn't fully recovered, despite Henry Cavill showing incredible range as the character in the cape and in "Kansas Plaid." 

 

Back to Elite, it's an incredibly human story. That’s most clear in the moments between Clark and Lois, and him and his dad (Paul Elding). He’s able to be his most (Kryptonite-free) vulnerable, doubting, and scared version of himself. It's in some ways like back to when he was a kid and still figuring everything out. I hope DC's animated branch continues to give us more films like this, especially from Clark...although not necessarily this Clark. If you haven't read or heard of Superman: Secret Identity, I highly encourage everyone to check it out.

 

I plan to return to this movie at some point soon because the original plan was to compare it to Captain America: Winter Soldier. While the extreme of Elite is anarchy, the extreme of Winter Soldier is national security, but with both characters championing similar ideals, so there's definitely more to say on the topic.

 

Anyway, I'd love to hear what others think of this movie and other pieces of Superman, or superhero, media. So, if you have something to say, leave a comment, or better yet, write or film your own review/essay and put it up on your own platform.


4.5/5

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Peter Pan (1953) | Guest Appearing on the Dolewhip and Dreams Podcast by Matthew Ryan Limerick

Update: Matt has rebranded Dolewhip and Dreams as Saturday Morning Confidential. The D&D episodes are still there, and the links below still work. 



Peter Pan, along with Winnie the Pooh, was one of my earliest hits of Disney magic as a baby. And while I, and many of us, watch or revisits or favorites, it's rare that we get the opportunity to really dive into them. We usually just check if we feel the same way about it, and that's that. With my friend Matthew Ryan Limerick, we went a little bit further. Please check out the Saturday Morning Confidential Podcast for what we had to say, and also listen to other episodes because they cover a wide range of Disney classics and lore with other incredible guests.

Saturday Morning Confidential Podcast Links


 

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

Harley Quinn: Season 1 (2019-2020)

So I don't write show/season reviews because that can be a lot to watch and keep track of. Harley Quinn was doable though because even with the relatively high amount of episodes, the show never really spreads itself too thin, and it's much more consistent than I think most people would expect. This is the easiest kind of show to screw up because the easiest way to do it is for Harley (Kayley Cuoco, in arguably her best role since 8 Simple Rules) and company to never, never change, and just wreak havoc on Gotham with no clear plan week-to-week. Instead, Harley and her team are a real ensemble, characters are depicted with fresh approaches, and the show's humor is varied in a way that reminds me of the best moments of South Park. It's not perfect, but it's another deep breath of fresh air from DC that Marvel and other publishers should keep an eye on.

So first, that ensemble and those characters. The main plot of the season is that Harley has broken up with Joker (Alan Tudyk), so part of making a name for herself involves putting together a crew and pulling off some big scores of her own design. That crew is Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), King Shark (Ron Funches), Dr. Psycho (an unrecognizable Tony Hale), the classically-trained, Shakspearean-style Clayface (Alan Tudyk), and occasionally Ivy's plant Frank (J.B Smoove) and Ivy's landlord Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander). With the title character, Cuoco said "I didn’t want to force an accent or try to be someone I’m not. I’m ‘Kaley as Harley,’ and accepting that early on enabled me to be free and very authentic." That seems to be true of all the actors and characters. It leads to things that possibly have never been attempted before with these icons in any medium.

For instance, Batman (Diedrich Bader) and Gordon's (Christopher Meloni) relationship feels similar to how Batman and Joker's has been on the screen since The Dark Knight. It's explored and parodied at the same time. So, we get Gordon flipping the Bat Signal on-and-off because he needs to talk about his marriage with his closest confidant. To anyone familiar with Meloni's other work, the extra-level of meta-ness is a bonus. If they got their own spin-off, or even their own comic, it would be a lot of fun.


Harley Quinn Season One PromoHarley's Crew (Minus Frank) | Copyright 2019-2020 Warner Media

Even though this isn't their movies, this style fits neatly with the DC's and WB's post-Batman vs Superman and Justice League strategy of not trying to copy Marvel and just letting their creators do their own thing, and that's really the last thing I expected from Harley Quinn. This could've been an animated Deadpool clone that was all off-the-wall humor but no substance. Instead, there's an actual story throughout the season and a long arc that takes like four episodes. And Harley and Ivy's relationship especially shines. They banter well together and look out for each other. Ivy calling Harley out on her crap when it comes to Joker is especially welcome. It's one thing for the new movies to bring up the toxicity, but having a voice of reason spell the consequences of that relationship is a much needed and appreciated extra mile. It's a friendship that makes people with some familiarity with them want to seek out the comics and fan-cast a Pamela Isley that would have great chemistry with Margot Robbie. Also, a small but impactful change for Ivy is she's less of an eco-terrorist. She has a line she doesn't want to cross, and it's incredibly humanizing. That demonstrates real effort on the part of the writers and directors. Speaking of them,' the scripts and dialogue should definitely be addressed a little.

Like I said, the jokes had a certain South Park quality to them, and that's not just due to the MA rating of the series. It's in the little things, too. South Park will have these jokes that could fit in on The Simpsons. One was Emmanuelle Lewis appearing as a "Dictionary Official" when the boys get a word redefined. When he shows up, Stan just says "Oh, it all makes sense now." They're probably just there because it's the funniest line Stone and Parker could come up with, but I think it's also another way to show that there's more beneath the surface, especially early on with a new series. In Harley's case, one such joke is about the young age of a tree monster, as shown by the rings. It's a good laugh, in the middle of a lot of chaos toward the end of the season.

Finally, one problem with the show is that some episode endings seemed a little rushed so that they could save pieces of an arc for the rest of the season, but that's better than dropping storylines entirely. Another is that the animation and action could be better. With a higher budget, it could definitely take inspiration from Birds of Prey's (reviewed here) fight scenes and look as fluid as Spectacular Spider-Man.

So, as mentioned, DC appears to be expanding in ways that Marvel and other publishers aren't yet. On top of other MCU shows that Marvel has planned, there's also a What If series that could be their approach to being something like Harley Quinn. After the perfect stopping point with their movies, I hope it is because this is the best time for them to start something new. The same goes for Image, Valiant, which just had a rocky start with Bloodshot, and other competitors. DC tried to learn from Marvel, copy them, and failed. Now, everyone can learn from DC, experiment, and succeed. 

The series can be viewed with a subscription to DC Universe. The second season is coming out now, so you might want to try waiting until that ends to get the 7-day trial, and then binge the show along with anything else you have time for. The first season is also being sold digitally wherever you regularly buy shows.

4/5
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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

"Sonic, he can really move. Sonic, he's got an attitude." That's how it went in the theme song for one of his 90's cartoons. Now, for this movie, just replace that attitude with pop-culture references that might become old in a few years. It's at least better than Sonic being a smartass.

Sonic the Hedgehog is directed by Jeff Fowler and written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller, and the story basically is about Sonic (Ben Schwartz) going from a loner to finally being able to reach out and meet people. That main person is Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), and together, they have to stop the military and Dr. "Eggman" Robotnik (Jim Carrey) from capturing Sonic.

So, it's a pretty standard family movie, and I think that means, apart from some nice character moments between Schwartz and Marsden, it's only as good as its jokes. Luckily, they're usually pretty good. For every joke about Uber that's just thrown out there to fill the silence, there's one about Robotnik drones being used to deliver packages for Amazon. It seemed like a lot of the references were to companies more than anything else. It's a little concerning, but since it's mostly spoken instead of logos clogging the screen, it could be worse too. Plus, there are some more timeless gags thrown in for good measure.

Sonic's speed, on top of his overall and overhauled design, is visualized well on-screen. Slow-motion is used sparingly. Instead, his speed is best demonstrated when he's playing baseball with himself like Bugs Bunny. It's a fun homage, and it's what I would've liked to have seen more of, not the references.

Sonic is voiced by Ben Schwartz
The original design of Sonic really wasn't that bad, but this fix made a lot of people happy | Copyright 2020 Paramount

Jim Carrey's Robotnik is an interesting creation. It feels like the filmmakers started with regular Robotnik, added Tony Stark's worst qualities, and then they just unleashed Carrey to interpret the first two pieces. It's a pleasure and an annoyance to see him firing on all cylinders again. It would've been better if his co-stars could stand toe-to-toe with him more on-screen, but he regularly steamrolls over them. The worst example of this, when he's not just making random noises, is a breastfeeding joke that should've pushed the movie gently into PG-13. It's a real shame for James Marsden because it always seems like he's the most overlooked part of whatever movie he's in. He's really funny in this, and so is the actress playing his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), and hopefully that doesn't go unnoticed. Something similar happens with Carrey's sidekick, Stone (Lee Majdoub), but he's given even less to work with.

If you're a long-time fan of Sonic or a little kid, you're going to like this movie. The 90-ish minutes appropriately rush by. For everyone else, the mileage may vary.

3/5

Note: As of this review, Birds of Prey, which I also wrote about, is underperforming while Sonic is safely heading toward a profit. If you don't have kids and can only see one right now, please check out Birds of Prey. We need more of both these kinds of movies: faithful game adaptations where the studio actually listened to the fans, and risky comic book movies by women but for everyone. One is guaranteed to spark followups right now, but the other isn't. 
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Saturday, January 4, 2020

Spies in Disguise (2019)

Note, mainly to myself, I still need to do posts for Jojo Rabbit and, now, Cats.

It's a beautiful thing when you can walk into a movie expecting to hate it but then walk out thinking it was alright. That was my experience with Spies In Disguise. It looked like they wasted the potential to do a CGI, action-packed, kid-friendly version of the show Archer, but a lot of that is there. Even better, the movie has a great message for kids who don't like being considered "weird," and there's a surprising message about how actual spies, government agencies and police need to be more accountable when working. Still, jokes can be pretty hit-or-miss, and that does hold Spies In Disguise back from being a real contender when it comes to ranking the flick next to Toy Story 4 and other animated hits from this overall stunning year for films.

The movie, directed by Troy Quane & Nick Bruno, is about superstar agent, one-man-army, Lance Sterling (Will Smith) having to team up with the agency's scientist and gadget creator, Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) so that he can clear his name after being set up for treason. Lance needs a way to be able to operate covertly, he turns to Walter for something that can help, and Walter makes him a pigeon.

Luckily animal-related "hijinks" are pretty much kept in check, and that's one of the best things about the movie. Instead, the best parts, are either Holland and Smith playing off of each other, or it's the fun and creative action that itself is character-driven. 

Smith and Holland character promo
Smith (left) and Holland (right) are a dream-team for the studio, banking on their celebrity status, and they're a dream-team for the audience | Copyright 2019 Fox/Disney

What I mean by character-driven action is the idea that only these guys could think of these things and pull it off. A perfect example is the character of Bullseye in the Daredevil comics, movie, and especially show. He turns even the most unlikely object anything into a projectile, and the creators play with that. In Spies In Disguise, it's all about Walter's non-lethal gadgets and approach to taking down the bad guys. In that aspect, it's like if Batman wasn't brooding because Walter, instead of spray painting everything the color of darkness, makes everything bright, colorful, and practically candy-coated. It's the perfect approach to take for animation. 

Animation-wise, Blue Sky Studio's best comparison is Sony Animation. They both love to do things in a heavily stylized manner that's closer to classic Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons than to Pixar's and DreamWorks's typically more realistic look. That's why the movie looks so good, it plays everything fast and loose, and it never really rests. That's critical when a movie's writing may not be as tight as it should be.

So, the jokes vary. Some, like one-liners by communications expert Ears (DJ Khaled) definitely won't be for everyone, but that's also why they're one-liners. It's a bump in the road just about every character hits periodically, but it's worth hearing because of what the movie really has to say.

Lance Sterling being a one-man army gets directly tied to collateral damage he does while working, and, again, it feels heavy for a kids movie. Superhero movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Man of Steel definitely opened the door to talk about this subject in media, but it still was separated by the idea of superhumans vs regular people, and are superhumans above the law. This turns it into is anyone above the law, are government agencies above the law? Admittedly, it can only go so far without becoming too heavy, or preachy, but it's more than some things like...it's tough to actually find an example...Gangster Squad, which has a line about officers leaving their badges at home. 

Spies in Disguise earns a 3.5/5, and even with Disney buying Blue Sky Studios (Fox), they should still have a bright future ahead moving into the next decade.

Update: A shutdown of Blue Sky was announced in 2021. Details on it can be found here. F*** Disney for doing this. A short, recent documentary on Blue Sky can be watched on YouTube here.
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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

"Peter, these are the years when a man changes into the man he's gonna become the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into." The Spider-Man film franchise began in 2002 and has hit the age of identity crisis. It's gone in three separate directions this year, with Avengers: Infinity War, Venom, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but that's how this empire should run. It's leagues better than when one Spider-Man movie tries to do it all, like when Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2, each attempted that.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is directed by Bob Persichetti, Rise of the Guardian's Peter Ramsey (he's finally back), and Rodney Rothman, and written by Rotham and Phil Lord, and they set out to tell the tale "one last time," seven more times...sorta. When The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) opens a wormhole that teleports other Spideys into Mile Morales' (Shameik Moore) dimension, he has to use his new powers to help send them home before the wormhole becomes unstable.

Telling Miles' story could backfire simply for being yet another Spider-Man origin onscreen, for being another superhero origin, so the filmmakers are smart to speed through the familiar cliff notes of getting his powers and giving him some villains to fight within the first ten minutes. A lasting moment from this intro is Miles exchanging "good mornings" and secret handshakes with a crowd of old classmates, on his way to a new prep school. Rotham and Lord knock Miles down a peg with the new school (and the inescapable woes of adolescence), but he's built up well as the more outgoing and adventurous Anti-Puny-Parker.

This is his story through and through, and the other Spider-People partnering up with Miles luckily reinforces that, mostly to the film's benefit. Into the Spider-Verse features a classic, but worn down, schlubbier, and (at last) adult version of Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy, the Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider Noir (Nicolas Cage), from the pulpy 1930s, Peni Parker and her spider-co-piloted robot (Kimiko Glenn), and, finally, Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (John Mulaney), who remarkably doesn't just predate The Simpsons Movie, but the show too. Except for Spider-Woman and Jake Johnson's version of Peter, most of visiting Spiders aren't explored too deeply. They're given more than one-liners, but it's really just a promise of what'll come in the sequels. The one-liners are fantastic though. Cage especially steals his scenes with a put-on New York accent, reference to egg-creams, and a passing mention of the "moral ambiguity of your violent actions." Billy Wilder would be proud.

Finally, the animation in Into the Spider-Verse is a long time in coming for the studio, for the genre, for film. There hasn't been a literal, visual adaptation of a comic in a while (except for Captain Underpants), but now the bar's been raised for other movies that want to try it. While it's not relying on a heavy outline style, probably because that would fill the screen too much, the modern visual storytelling in comics is on full display. 2D animation is utilized throughout the movie, and ranges from re-creating comic panels, to Peni's anime style, to the ludicrous antics of Spider-Ham. Text boxes, onomatopoeias, and speech bubbles also highlight how upside-down Miles's world is about to become, but he'll get used to being upside when getting the drop on villains, so it's all good.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a return to where the franchise began writing-wise, with the (typically forgotten) heart of the second generation of Spidey films. As (pile of garbage) Nostalgia Critic, Doug Walker, has mentioned, the Raimi Trilogy featured the same plot structure used in Into the Spider-Verse. The movie doesn't spread itself too thin with unnecessary characters, plot points, or an inflated runtime and budget. But that just means the movie is functional. They also salvaged the message of the Webb films and made it more important than ever. "Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask." Try it on.

4/5
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Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Star (2017)

The Star,
directed by Timothy Reckart, is what the Bible, and by extension Christianity and other religions, was made for. It's an adaptation of a story. It can be adapted a hundred different ways, and viewed another hundred different ways. Being, partly, a major studio film (Columbia Pictures and their subsidiary Sony Pictures Animation), The Star's target audience is everyone, so it handles religion differently than the faith-based films that have been coming out. Actually, this isn't a faith-based film as much as it is just The Nativity Story for kid. The only problem here is kids over a certain age may not find it funny.

This Nativity Story centers around Bo the donkey (Steven Yuen) wanting to do something important with his life and joining the Royal Cavalry. Instead, after breaking out of the mill he worked at, he winds up in the care of Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi), just as Joseph realizes that she's pregnant. The scene is handled great, as they carefully sidestep the term "immaculate conception," while still stating and accepting that that's what happened. Instead, Joseph instantly jumps into scared and unprepared, but excited, father-mode. If Joseph had asked for an explanation, the movie would've either become inappropriate, boring, or both, so it's best to avoid the conversation. They soon leave for Bethlehem, and the movie is only about a third of the way through and some padding is needed. 

The Star isn't a movie that should have a conventional villain, but it does, unfortunately. When King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is informed that a new king is coming, he requests a soldier and two dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) track down and kill the king. It sounds terrible because it is terrible, but it also sparks substantive conversations about religion. There are a few moments like that, such as when God appears to a flock of (literal) sheep and asks them a request. That could play incredibly negatively to a religious-minded audience, but it's done lightly in a sincere adaptation of this story, so it's not a piece of commentary by Ricky Gervais or David Cross.  If nothing else, these moments lead to some mild action, chases, and excitement for the heroes. 

Speaking of which, one of the biggest surprises of this film is the animation. Sony Pictures uses their animation/visual effects studio ImageWorks to do some eye-popping work that ranges from the most photo-realistic (The Amazing Spider-Man movies) to the most rule-breaking and cartoony (Storks and the Hotel Transylvania movies), and The Star appeared to be no exception. But it is. The reason the animation looks more restrained than the off the wall nature of Hotel Translvania and Storks is because Cinesite is the animation studio responsible, and they did great. The animation is very clean and very smooth, and the texturing on every little clay or wooden object really shows. Most importantly, many characters at least look distinctive, even if their traits don't stand out. The best of Cinesite's work in The Star is their depiction of God. He's a beautiful blend of light and particle effects, and he's given just the right amount of personality and time on screen for this movie. 

The Star is a pretty standard, harmless family movie, but that means it's one of the few harmless contemporary Christian films. It may be the start to repairing the divides between religion, Hollywood, and the people. One of the last lines the movie is "[...]he's just a boy." And if these words are just insane ramblings then that means The Star is just a movie. One that may be worth trying.

3/5
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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

The Dark Knight Returns
introduced the theory that Batman riding a horse is the mark of a good movie. Director Sam Liu's Gotham by Gaslight is compelling evidence and a great movie in its own right anyway.

Gotham by Gaslight is an alternative universe story where a 19th century Batman (Bruce Greenwood) must catch Jack the Ripper. At 78 minutes, that sounds like a streamlined story, but Liu and screenwriter Jim Kreig fit a lot into their runtime. This new setting includes a reestablished origin for Gotham.

Don't worry, Bruce Wayne's parents aren't featured in the movie, but the Monarch Theatre plays a central role, as Jack attacks women who perform there. First up, is a de-powered Poison Ivy (Kari Wuhrer) who starts things off on the wrong foot. The movie opens with her performance, and the animation feels noticeably rigid. While not wanting Poison Ivy to dance to provocatively is a good thing, there are ways to give her a creative, well-animated performance that's clean. She just kind of moves left and right a little. Luckily, once Batman tries to intervene the animation picks up considerably. The fight scenes are choreographed and sound similar to the ones in The Dark Knight Returns. Batman and Jack are fast, but their blows feel heavy and satisfying.

After their first meeting, a lot of time is spent on Bruce Wayne and the locals of Victorian Gotham, and Gotham by Gaslight becomes its own film. The setting and characters are well-developed and set up in a way that suggests Liu and Kreig will return them. Characters featured include Harvey Dent (Yuri Lowenthal), Catwoman (Jennifer Carpenter), and, interestingly, multiple pre-Robin Robins who already know each other. There's no telling how this could evolve, and Gotham by Gaslight encourages second-guessing of ideas.

Similar to the opening of the movie, animation, unfortunately, isn't the only thing that's occasionally rushed. Harvey, also unfortunately, isn't that well written as the links between Jack the Ripper and Two Face are clear to anyone old enough to watch the movie. It's handled in a very upfront matter, and how annoying the audience finds it will vary. At the very least, all the lines are delivered well by the cast, especially Batman's.

Bruce Greenwood as Batman
Also, is there any correlation between a distinctive cowl and a well-portrayed Batman, or a good Batman movie? | Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Bruce Greenwood returns to the booth, after voicing Batman in Under the Red Hood and Young Justice. He's fantastic, and like Kevin Conroy and Roger Craig Smith (Batman: Arkham Origins), he understands what makes Bruce Wayne compelling with and without the cowl. Working with Jennifer's Carpenter's Catwoman and an extended amount of time as Gotham's socialite adds new dimensions to a role he already had down to a science.

Occasionally rushed writing and animation hold back a would-be perfect addition to the DC Animated Universe, but these moments are in a world as well-realized as the one in The Dark Knight Returns. That one, technically, got a sequel, so maybe this one should too?

3.5/5
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