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Monday, February 10, 2020

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

According to
The Mary Sue "Birds of Prey did not meet expectations at the box office, pulling in just under $34 million, according to Rotten Tomatoes...Some are framing the issue as a failure in marketing [as] early trailers failed to really highlight the plot of the movie." The problem is if the ads focused on the plot, a lot of people would've left the theatre frustrated. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is just about Harley (Margot Robbie) rediscovering herself without The Joker (Stand-ins and Archive Footage) and her place in Gotham. That place is on the hit list of basically everybody she's ever come in contact with, including Roman "Black Mask" Sionis (Ewan McGregor), after she happens upon a diamond he really wants. While Harley is reaching her realizations, the audience learns that it's her world, and the rest of her crew is just living in it.

It's a basic plot that's used to fuel a lot of fun, but the issue is that it's told in a roundabout way. To introduce and give backstory to everyone, including the Birds of Prey members, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), long flashbacks and fill-ins are used. It's not too messy, but it's distracting, and people may lose the "Hows" and "Whys" of what's going on around them. Also, it's a way to remind people that this a Suicide Squad sequel/reboot in the DCEU, and how much that frustrates people will vary.

A lot of that fun mentioned before comes from actors but also from the action. Birds of Prey risks being too similar to Deadpool, but the differences shine through. The violence in Birds of Prey is cruel, with bones breaking every which way, but it's not gratuitous without a good reason to be. If things are graphic, it's typically because Sionis is doing it or ordering a lackey to do it. It shows some form of sensitivity and control from the movie's writer (Christina Hodson) and director (Cathy Yan). This is extended even further when talking about Sionis's main lackey, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).

McGregor's Black Mask is probably the best gangster villain in a Batman movie. They've had a ton of them in the past, but they were usually side characters to the major villain. A scene that sticks out is one where he's trying to impress some people in his office with collections of art. The casual sexism and racism dripping out his mouth contrasts well with his more manic moments of violence. Harley throws in some psychoanalysis for good measure, but we're really given everything we need without it. Still, it's an extra shot to his over-inflated self-importance. 

Zsasz has a pretty solid history outside of the comics, thanks to the Arkham video games and Batman Begins. He's typically a complete psychopath who believes he's freeing people by murdering them with a knife. This time around, he's more collected and his behavior is less dependent on a mental disorder. Hodson and Yan may be trying to highlight that, according to some recent studies, "less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness." So, make Zsasz more like your garden-variety criminal, and he actually becomes a much better character. If we're going to get more cinematic stories out of Gotham, and we are thanks to Robert Pattinson and Matt Reeves, it's absolutely a route worth taking. 

From great performances from the cast to a depth given to Harley Quinn that hasn't been seen since her beginnings on Batman The Animated Series, Birds of Prey is a fun trip with a lot to offer, but as an origin story for everyone outside of Harley, it's a longer than expected journey. 

3.5/5


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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 turns 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 works hard to earn its rating.

3.5/5

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. Fuck Disney for doing this, and fuck them for doing this, too. A short, recent documentary on Blue Sky can be watched on YouTube here.
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Sunday, December 22, 2019

Knives Out (2019) | Spoiler-Free

Note: Thank you to my friend who paid for my ticket. Also, since this is spoiler-free, a lot of details are going to have to be kept vague, and that makes writing it a bit difficult.

It's been two years since The Last Jedi, so it's finally time for director Rian Johnson's followup! As someone who hated seeing the rift that movie created, I was really curious about a lot of aspects of his next movie and how they'd be received. Making things more interesting, personally, was this being Chris Evans's first post-Marvel movie and a taste of Daniel Craig's post-Bond career. Rest assured that all of them will continue to light up the screen for years to come. Still, Knives Out didn't quite deliver on all promises a modern, comedic, mystery movie should offer.

Knives Out is about the death of patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) on his birthday. Everybody is a suspect, and that includes a busy family tree and staff of the elaborately, beautifully decorated home. The house is even described in the movie as a Clue board by one of the detectives, and all the characters are well-defined, even if it's done in a clunky way.

Those are the main problems with the movie. With the house, it's well-designed and well-used, but it's not creatively captured onscreen. Something about Knives Out feels bare bones, and I didn't expect that from the guy who just received a reputation for going kinda crazy and going f**k it. That's the thing, I guess, he doesn't go crazy in visual ways, like trippy camera angles or weird editing. It's all in his script and plotting, but it feels like it's both underwritten and overwritten at the same time. 

Knives Out just has a very rough start with clunky dialogue and exposition. It really should've been assisted or substituted with some visual storytelling showing the audience the Thrombey family tree, or some of the potential suspects' motives, or something. Instead, the movie places the full burden of its success on the actors, their characters, and the circumstances of Harlan Thrombey's death. Luckily, everything does start to click when the investigation starts gaining traction, and the investigation is led by a jubilant, fun detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). 

First, his southern accent comes out of nowhere. You're almost not sure what you're hearing in his opening lines, even though the words themselves are clear. The drawl earns him the glorious title in the movie of "CSI: KFC." A quick sidenote, KFC is getting into romance novels, comic books, and video games, so if they hear about this and run with it, it could be frighteningly beautiful. 

Anyway, piecing together the puzzle is where Johnson's strengths lie. He makes sure that every possibility is still plausible, and that means he can come up with scenarios that are just shy of impossible. And while he's doing that, he's encouraging the audience to do the same thing. I was coming up with my own theories, and I can definitely see fanfiction writers creating their own versions of events. Even better, video editors can do the same. If has their own alternative cut of the movie or script, or something inspired by it, I hope they share it with the world. Knives Out best strength is that, like Clue (the game and the movie), it encourages imagination, creativity, and critical thinking. On top of that, the movie has a decent-sized heart, too, shown through the characters Harlan Thrombey left the biggest impact on.

Two more minor complaints about the movie are that it does place itself in the current era with some light political references, so they might pull people out for a minute. The commentary is necessary but could've been more general too. The other complaint is that the movie has a chase scene that should've been better setup from the start. It's a small setup-payoff thing that someone like Johnson should've thought through a little more, considering how tight the rest of the movie seems.

Something about Knives Out just fell short for me visually. Something much more quirky seemed to be promised, but maybe that's just my own expectations. Instead, what we're given is a great mystery and the means to create great mysteries of our own, and that has to be commended.

3.5/5



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Saturday, October 12, 2019

Joker (2019) | Spoiler-Free Video Review

So, the written review about Joker was born out of this initial video I shot and then took a little time to cut together. It's my first official video for the Why We Watch channel! While it's a little rough, I am pretty happy with it, and they can only get better from here.

Please check it out, and let me know what you think about the video and the movie itself. Also, I hope you take my closing comments to heart and try to create something like this yourself on your own platform.


This video, and others are collected, on-site, here.



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Monday, October 7, 2019

Joker (2019) | Spoiler-Free

Note: A special thanks to the people in my Entrepreneurship in Arts & Music class for prompting this site redesign and actual brand building. Hopefully, more to come.

Update: Yep! Over a year later, a lot more.

2019’s Joker has a firm grip on the character, and slowly releases him from our fascination, which has been constant since at least 2008. At least, that’s my hope.

I had a lot of mixed emotions seeing this movie. First, I was paranoid of something like Auora Colorado happening here, but that started to go away after the first half-hour. After that it was a lot of conflicting feelings of how you’re supposed to feel about Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, and then I arrived at a conclusion I could live with. I hate the Joker. Saying that out loud felt really weird for a guy with a Dark Knight poster in his room, who used to recite those scar stories. One of the reasons may be that we're going from a version of the character that cares about nothing, to one that at the end cares only about himself. Regardless of how that selfishness comes about, it's what makes the character's actions more disgusting. I'm glad WB and DC gave director Todd Philips permission to finally make that happen.

Joaquin Phoenix is a lock for at least an Oscar Nomination. He didn’t only transform himself, he made it effortless as well. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same man who left his own stamp on Johnny Cash's music. The small problem with that is just as Heath Ledger overshadowed Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent eleven years ago, Phoenix may have done the same for Frances Conroy, who plays his mother Penny Fleck. The same can be said for some of his other co-stars, but that's more because of lack of screentime. The main character is fully developed, and everyone else is largely sidelined.

This moment happens like a sudden shock back to reality toward the end of the movie, and it allowed me to breathe a heavy sigh of relieve.

Now, as for the actual filmmaking, Todd Phillips has completely crossed over and aged gracefully since finishing The Hangover Trilogy. (Keep in mind I still have to see War Dogs.) He wants to make a mature film, and for the most part he succeeds. Arthur’s transformation is handled with extreme care, and the movie itself just looks fantastic. Phillips and Director of Photography, Lawrence Sher, create a style and Gotham all their own in New York. The city is still disgusting, but filtered through Arthur, its potential to be its best or worst is in focus.

The only problem with Gotham is how Phillips sees some of its citizens. He believes some people who say “Eat the Rich” mean it, and it’s troubling that he’s bringing it up during this very heated time politically. Basically his wires are crossed when it comes to the hot-button issues plaguing the far-left and the actions of the far-right.

What I hope doesn’t is this potential newfound revulsion of a character that we don’t really need to give the spotlight right now. Give this movie the attention it deserves, then turn to something a little brighter. Hopefully WB and DC actually decide to bury the character for a few years, and when they want that "Joker money," they can just use Harley Quinn. 

4/5



I’d like to hear your thoughts on it. Don't just comment about this one, please write your own reviews or even put up your own analysis on YouTube. I may not want Joker to be something we revisit every year, but it does need to be explored as fully as possible.

Finally, I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the whole Incel thing. If you’d like know about that, I recommend checking out a video on YouTube by Contrapoints on what incels are, and another by La'Ron Readus about how that may or may not be related to this movie.
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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Booksmart (2019)

Update:
I made my own tv spot for this movie, based on the Teenage Dirtbag idea mentioned at the bottom of the review. The spot is here, and 'making of' details about it are here. Enjoy!

After a somewhat disappointing run, overshadowed by blockbusters, Booksmart was re-released in major theaters. Jumping at the opportunity to see it a second time did not disappoint in the slightest, but figuring out what to say about it hasn't gotten any easier. It's a fantastic high school comedy, and directorial debut, from Olivia Wilde. It's most comparable to Superbad, but with two elements that set it apart: well-developed side characters and it looks like an arthouse film. So, how exactly does that raise the bar?

Booksmart is about two overachieving students, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who decide to cut loose for the first time and go to one of their friends' grad party. The one problem, they don't have the host's number or address. So, a night "we'll never remember with friends we'll never forget" is exactly what they get.

One scene in Superbad that people may be unexpectedly reminded of is when some jerk named Jesse tells Seth and Evan they're not invited to his grad party, spits on Seth, calls Evan a f****t, and...that's it. He comes back at the end for a comeuppance, but he's so forgettable it's not worth it, and Seth and Evan being outsiders is clear enough through other scenes. There's a lot of stock characters like that in Superbad, not nearly as bad, but just there for one-off, padding moments.

Booksmart, on the other hand, fully utilized its cast and every character feels authentic. Put-downs aren't without just cause, and they're not all that mean-spirited. Booksmart just uses them to get things started. It's a slow intro, that could've been cut down a little, to the real insanity. Once it's set up, the comedy really comes out, and it's from seeing characters, not just the actors giving them life, having a great time. Overall, what I think I may (also) be getting at is it's the more optimistic movie. This chapter was fantastic, you're open to turn back to it whenever you want, but the next one will be even better.

Now, about that arthouse style...it's beautiful. Olivia Wilde and her crew pull out all the stops to make the environment feel immersive. A lot of (I think) natural lighting in, cozy locations. This is heightened by some key closeups. This also includes an extensive playlist that includes music from Alanis Morissette and Perfume Genius, and a score from Dan The Automator. It's not as memorable as the soundtracks for Guardians of the Galaxy or Baby Driver, but it's not trying to be that. Instead, the album carries Amy and Molly through their rollercoaster night. Every up and down punctuated with just the right note. That goes for how sound it edited as well.

Booksmart Animation
The animated sequence was by ShadowMachine. A glimpse was in the trailers, and it definitely raised interest in the movie | Copyright 2019 Annapurna

Booksmart is the latest in a long line of recent bold debut titles, like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, and that alone should be creating a lot more buzz. It's a tough movie to sell because it's "another high school comedy," but it's a step above other high school movies, and the jokes are laugh-out-loud hilarious and shouldn't be given away. What's left is just trust in Wilde and Annapurna Pictures. The studio's been behind some heavy hitters, and this is one of them. 

4/5

One more thing, before or after seeing it, I recommend listening to this cover of Teenage Dirtbag. They match up together pretty well.

Another Update: A couple years later, I made a little something for Wilde's second movie, Don't Worry Darling, starting from a Reddit Photoshop Battle.

Don't Worry Darling Poster  Updated Don't Worry Darling Poster
The second one is an update, but I like both
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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Men In Black: International (2019)

The last time Chris Hemsworth was in a Sony reboot (Ghostbusters), the studio was too hands-on and micromanaged the project to death. This time, it seems the producers were too hands-off and contributed very little but their names and capital. It's a shame too because what little Men In Black: International has could be the start of a fun reboot. Instead, the movie is completely aimless and only somewhat saved by the cast and location-hopping.

Men In Black: International claims to be an F. Gary Gray film about Agent H (Hemsworth) and new recruit Agent M (Tessa Thompson) hunting a mole in the organization, but it's really a movie led by screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, and they wrote something as barebones as it gets.

MIB: International's main plot of finding a mole and saving the world doesn't really kick off until about thirty minutes into the movie. Between M's quick recruitment and then, it's a mess of establishing which extraterrestrials are a threat and why. What's going on is shrouded in mystery, so that it can be paid off later with globetrotting, jokes, and character building.

Some of it works well. Hemsworth and Thompson, naturally, work exceptionally well together. It's a nice twist to have the straight-laced new recruit and a veteran party boy working together. Hemsworth's antics do enough to distance himself from Thor. His overconfidence is much more misplaced, as he survives by luck and a general sense of just squeaking by. The best example of this is probably how he's able to make himself right at home in a nightclub. Thor could drink and dance the night away too but not quite as smoothly as Agent H. Thompson has had much better, more rewarding roles in Dear White People, Sorry to Bother You, and the Creed, but it's great to see her with another role under her belt. M will make a fine agent, if she's allowed to be revisited in the future. Liam Neeson's High T may not be a match for Rip Torn's Zed, but he's not trying to be, and that is one of the most redeeming factors of the movie.

The best thing about MIB: International being underwritten is the nostalgic moments aren't overused, unlike in the reboot of Ghostbusters. The references occasionally pop up throughout, but they're really brought in to showcase how the tech of the organization, and the filmmakers' CGI, have improved over the last seven years. It also lends itself to new jokes. Unfortunately, most of these jokes don't land, another casualty of Marcum and Holloway's work. At least these guys and F Gary Gray know how to pick their locations.

Losing the safety net of easy New York City jokes that were in the other movies ends up being another win for the movie. Paris, Marrakesh, and a couple other choice locations are breaths of excitement in a movie that may have people trying to treat their theatre seat as a nice mattress or couch.

Agents in Marrakesh
If nothing else, Marrakesh is an interesting location to explore | Copyright 2019 Sony

For anyone who does manage to be on the edge of their seat watching this, that's awesome. There are great characters and great action, it's all just way too few and far between in a nearly two-hour movie.

2.5/5

Update: So the day after writing this, two articles came out about how the production was troubled. So, I may be at least a little wrong about putting so much of the blame on Marcum and Holloway. If my criticism really is misplaced, I offer them my apologies. Hopefully, more info is released because it does make things more compelling.
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Sunday, May 5, 2019

Avengers: Endgame (2019) | Short Review

Well, I've seen this movie three times in theatres, which might be a record, so I should probably say something about it. The scariest part about the high expectations for Endgame isn't the first viewing I got in Thursday evening because of fear of spoilers, it was the second and third. How re-watchable is a spectacle that's biggest draw is the surprises? Strip away the callbacks to what came before, and what's left? Thank Christ, tons. Both good and bad.

Avengers: Endgame follows the remaining Avengers as they retaliate against Thanos in the hopes of bringing back the people they lost in Infinity War. Besides wanting to avoid spoilers, this movie has too much ground to cover, so I'm going to talk about a couple that stuck out.

First, there's Thanos (Josh Brolin). With his goals accomplished and his ego a little bit boosted, he becomes a little less relatable in Endgame, and that's a damn shame. He does not become a one-note villain or horribly written, but a new level of cruelty is revealed as he works to maintain the universe he's "saved." As justified as his actions become, his ranking as this century's Darth Vader takes a small hit. Still, Josh Brolin (and the vfx artists at Weta Digital and Digital Domain) gives a perfect performance as the Mad Titan. Between the three, every expression is genuine when it was shot with motion capture, and real when shown on screen. He may not be the best supervillain we've ever had (if you count the shows and outside the MCU), but he's the best larger than life one.

Second, there's the camera work and editing. There's a long take with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) chasing and taking down some thugs (yes, this movie still has some garden-variety crime and is all the better for it). The camera's focus and slow movement is representative of the whole movie. Everything is captured in a way that allows it to sink in, which is necessary when so much is being juggled at once. Marvel movies get some heat because, apart from Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy 1 and 2, they look a little bland and flat on the screen. That is a serious problem, but at least the Russos don't try to trick people into thinking they're flashy by using nauseating editing, unlike early DCEU movies. Luckily, the DCEU's gotten better at both.

Finally, it's just a blast, if you know and love these characters. Endgame is honestly a tough sell if you're new to everything (but that hasn't stopped parents from taking their kids into the theatre). Infinity War (or YouTube recaps) can bring people up to speed, but then enjoyment is solely on the actors' shoulders. All that can be promised is that they're giving it their all, and hopefully it resonates.

For some, myself included, this movie will never fail to make them cry | Copyright 2019 Disney

4.5/5


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