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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Review

If you can count on one studio to push forward on it’s plans even in the midst of a global pandemic affecting worldwide box office, it would definitely be Marvel.  After a year off due to the pandemic related shutdowns, Marvel returned with a vengeance in 2021.  In addition to their big screen releases, Marvel was also making a statement in the streaming wars, with shows like WandavisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki making a statement on Disney+, with their own narratives tied in with those of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But, even with that offshoot on streaming, Marvel and Disney still had big plans for their mega-franchise on the big screen, which unfortunately was dealt with increased challenges due to an ongoing pandemic.  Theaters having finally reaching a point where they could operate again at near full capacity still was not enough assurance for studios to gamble on releasing their movies over the course of the last summer.  Some still did, and the result was mixed.  Some movies prospered while others floundered, and the overall numbers are still underwater from where they had been pre-pandemic.  One of the movies that did manage to do better than others was Marvel’s Black Widow, which Disney put out in theaters in a hybrid release with Disney+ Premiere Access.  Overall, Black Widow did win the Summer of 2021 with the highest domestic box office, but even still, it was on the low end for the MCU as a whole.  Some wonder if the hybrid theatrical/ streaming release may have in some way undercut Black Widow‘s long term box office grosses.  For Disney, Marvel’s parent studio, that seems to be a theory taking hold, as they decided to take a different route with their next film in the line-up by granting it a theatrical only window of 45 days.   And that film is the bold “experiment” known as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi is certainly not one of the more well known heroes from the Marvel comics, though he has enjoyed his fair share of devoted fans.  First introduced in 1975 by creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin of Marvel Comics, Shang-Chi was heavily inspired by the popularity of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.  Utilizing mastery of Wushu style martial arts, he developed into one of the more noteworthy heroes within the Marvel canon who did not rely upon any supernatural power.  That’s not to say that he hasn’t at times has had to rely on help from the supernatural world within Marvel Comics, but for the most part he is a self-made, self-reliant hero.  Though his presence in the Marvel universe is noteworthy for it’s Asian representation, it hasn’t been without controversy either.  For one thing, part of Shng-Chi’s backstory is that he is the song of supervillain Fu Manchu, a character (not originally created by Marvel) who has been used in movies and comic books often as a racist trope to slander Asian people in various media.  Over time, Marvel lost the rights to use Fu Manchu as a character in their comics, and Shang-Chi’s backstory has been altered to separate itself from the racism of it’s past.  Even still, the same backstory remains of Shang-Chi having this dark past of being the son of a criminal overlord; first in the comics with a newly created character named Zheng Zu, and in this movie, it’s changed again to reintroduce an already established villain from a different franchise, namely Wenwu: The Mandarin.  It’s interesting that not only has Marvel seen Shang-Chi as a worthy addition to their MCU family, but they are even betting on his movie to perform solely on it’s own theatrically.  The question remains, is Shang-Chi a character strong enough to warrant a risky challenge at the box office at this time, or is he a sacrificial experiment to reinforce a studio’s push towards more streaming options.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wastes no time in getting the adventures started.  We are introduced to a young Asian man living in San Francisco named Shaun (Simu Liu) who when not working Valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) is out late partying  and singing karaoke.  But on one day when they are taking the bus to work, the duo of Shaun and Katy are accosted by sinister looking thugs intent of grabbing a pendant that Shaun wears everywhere he goes.  To the amazement of all those on the bus, including Katy, Shaun not only holds his own in the fight against the thugs, but he also displays almost inhuman martial arts skills.  Even still, one of the thugs named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) manages to steal the pendant away.  This prompts Shaun to leave town in search of the pendant.  He of course now comes clean to his friend Katy about his past and reveals that his real name is Shang-Chi.  He tells her that the men were a part of the Ten Rings terrorist organization, which is run by the Wenwu (Tony Leung) his father.  Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, is a centuries old war lord who wields the power of the mystical Ten Rings, which gives him super powers as well as eternal life.  He created the Ten Rings as a multinational ring of anarchic terrorists who among other things have toppled governments and kidnapped high profile targets (such as Tony Stark in the original Iron Man) for ransom, with Wenwu becoming increasingly powerful and wealthy along the way, as well as more ruthless.  Upon her insistence, Katy accompanies Shang-Chi to China, where he seeks out his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who keeps a similar pendant to his.  Both were gifts from their deceased mother Li (Fala Chen), who Wenwu believes left them keys to finding the mystical land of her origin known as Ta Lo, where Wenwu still mistakenly believes she still lives.  Upon learning of their father’s dangerous plans, Shang-Chi and Xialing set out to find Ta Lo before their father can, with Katy and her expert driving skills helping along the way.  And as we soon learn, there is more at the end of the road in Ta Lo than they initially realize, including an even more sinister force that could be unleashed by their father if he is not stopped.

The premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes at an interesting crossroads for Marvel.  After the mixed results of Black Widow’s premiere in the Summer, Disney is now seeing Shang-Chi as testing ground for the strength of the theatrical market in the face of an ongoing pandemic crisis.  This led to a bit of controversy as current Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred Shang-Chi to an “experiment,” which is wording that the movie’s star Simu Liu took issue with.  It’s unfortunate that the studio is treating this less like an exciting  new chapter in their mega-franchise, and more like a guinea pig in their test of the current state of the theatrical market.  It’s unfortunate that this movie is releasing under these circumstances, because had it not, this would have likely been a real game-changing movie for Marvel.  For one thing, it marks a significant moment for the MCU as it introduces an Asian superhero into the Avengers line-up for the first time.  There have been Asian characters in the MCU before, but none have been the headliner like Shang-Chi, and for Marvel, they are hoping that this movie does for the Asian community what Black Panther did for black audiences.  This is reflected by the fact that the movie is top to bottom representative of the Asian community, both in front and behind the camera.  Director Destin Daniel Cretton tapped into his own Asian heritage, particularly when it comes to cinematic influences, when making this movie and it shows.  People who are familiar with Wushu martial arts films such as those by filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) will see a lot of that same style present in Shang-Chi.  And while that style does set it apart from other Marvel movies, it’s still distinctively an MCU film, with several notable Easter eggs throughout.  I also like that the movie takes time to make a pseudo-apology for the Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3 (2013) which is still one of the low points of the MCU.  As a stand alone feature in the MCU, it works well enough to establish our hero and where he will fit in this world, while at the same time doing some incredible world building along the way.

Unfortunately, there are some glaring flaws with the movie as well.  For one thing, it falls into the unfortunate trap of following the Marvel formula a little too stringently.  In particular, the movie loses focus as it heads towards it’s end, a “third act”-itis that is sadly becoming more and more of a problem for more Marvel properties.  Seen likewise in other properties that succumbed to underwhelming climaxes as of late in the MCU, like Black Widow and Wandavision, Shang-Chi unfortunately breaks away from the more interesting character building that happens earlier in the film to raise the stakes higher as it enters the home stretch.  And this unfortunately drowns out what made the movie interesting in the first place with a lot of CGI-enhances mayhem thrown at us on screen.  Though this movie still remains more visually interesting than say Black Widow, which really turned generic in it’s final climax, Shang-Chi still feels a bit hollow in it’s closing minutes.  The movie works a lot better when it departs from formula rather than steering into it.  I especially found the earlier fight scenes, like the one on the bus, to be far more engaging than what essentially turns into a kaiju fight in the film’s climax.  And one of the biggest victims of the movie loosing it’s focus as it adheres to formula is Shang-Chi himself.  We really don’t get much character development from him throughout the movie as he remains so of a passive traveler through all the different points in the plot.  The only thing that saves him as a character is the natural charisma of Simu Liu, who really has to do some heavy lifting here to bring out more character than what is on the page.  Still, overall his development into a hero feels more generic than say what we’ve seen from Spider-Man, or Black Panther, and even the early Avengers.  It’s overall a problem of the movie trying to do way too many different things instead of focusing on where the real intrigue of the story lies, which is Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father.

Though the story is a bit on the weak side, the same can’t be said about the cast.  They are definitely the highlight of this movie.  Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, who was introduced to the world on the Comic Con stage in 2019 only days after being officially cast, is immediately magnetic on screen, and though he’s let down a bit by the screenplay he’s given, he nevertheless shines through with infectious charisma that absolutely certifies him as a perfect choice for this role.  And being already proficient in martial arts before hand also lends some authenticity to the fight scenes in this movie, which requires Simu to do some incredible moves in front of the camera without the aid of visual effects.  He also has incredible chemistry with Awkwafina as Katy.  Her presence in the film is primarily to provide comic relief, but she also works well as that connection to a normal life that Shang-Chi values so much.  I really appreciate the fact that the movie does break a bit from formula and doesn’t immediately turn their relationship in the movie into a romantic one.  Shang-Chi and Katy pretty much remain platonic friends right up to the end, though it’s a relationship that is certainly stronger than just casual.  A lot of the movie’s best moments belong to the two of them together, and you really get the sense that it’s a friendship that drives Shang-Chi to be a better person overall.  Though they both make strong leads, it’s almost certainly going to be the case that the most talked about performance in this movie is Tony Leung as Wenwu.  In a very interesting reimagining of the famed Marvel supervillain, Leung commands the screen, portraying Wenwu in this quiet intensity like an Asian Michael Corleone.  Long considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, both in his native China and worldwide, Leung’s presence here is a real blessing for Marvel.  He brings a gravitas to the role that really affirms Wenwu as a top tier Marvel villain; and really helps to make up for the disappointing Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3.  It’s also significant that pretty much the entire cast (with only a couple exceptions) is made up of Asian actors.  Even a previously established Asian character in the MCU, Wong (played by Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange (2016) gets to participate briefly in this movie; which is not a spoiler because he appears in the trailer.  That thorough Asian representation throughout the movie alone is pretty significant, not just for a Marvel movie, but for any studio movie.

And while I do nitpick Destin Daniel Cretton’s handling of the story itself, I do commend his staging of the fight scenes in this movie.  Working for the first time on a large scale film like this, Cretton is not a director you would first think of to take on a Wushu style martial arts epic.  Up until now, he’s been more known for small, intimate dramas like Short Term 12 (2013) or Just Mercy (2019).  But, Marvel certainly sees potential in rising talents and believed Cretton was up to the task of bringing Shang-Chi to the big screen.  In particular, Cretton shows quite a bit of creativity in staging the fight scenes in this movie.  The previously mentioned bus fight in particular is a noteworthy standout, because of it’s combination of close quarters fighting and the fact that it’s also on a moving vehicle in the middle of San Francisco traffic.  Another fight on bamboo scaffolding also presents another stand-out moment, with specific nods to the crazy stunt work of Jackie Chan being spotlighted in that scene.  And while the CGI fest that makes for a messy climax in the movie’s final act loses some of the movie’s more intimate charm, it still makes the finale showdown between Shang-Chi and Wenwu worthy of what’s come before.  Considering that both actors, Liu and Leung, are experienced in martial arts, it makes it all the more satisfying watching them fight each other on screen, especially knowing that one of them came from the John Woo school of action movies.  I especially like the way that the Ten Rings themselves come into play as part of the fight, both as a superweapon and as something more integral to the story that brings these characters together.  It’s also interesting how Destin Daniel Cretton mixes his Asian cinema influences, bringing in the grittiness of a John  Woo action film and mixing it with the ethereal fantasy of a Zhang Yimou epic, and even injecting a bit of the intimate personal drama of Wong Kar-Wai.  It’s a movie deeply entrenched in the cinematic traditions of past Asian masters, but brings a great amount of it’s own voice to the mix and likewise also manages to fit perfectly within the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I have no doubt that the one thing this movie will undoubtedly accomplish is bringing more eyes to past Asian cinema, which would be an especially good outcome because many of those classics from these great Asian auteurs are due for rediscovery.

So, on it’s own, it’s a perfectly suitable introduction for a character that has really yet to emerge as an important player in the Marvel canon.  If anything, this movie will do a lot to raise Shang-Chi‘s stock as a comic book character, and more importantly, raise up an Asian presence in the ongoing narrative that is the MCU.  Already, the movie is being proclaimed as an Asian Black Panther, but I think that it’s unfair to have to stack this film up against another groundbreaking film in the Marvel universe.  Shang-Chi is piece of a grander puzzle, but it has to stand on it’s own as it’s own story.  There are quite a few things that I wish were a bit better about the movie, namely it’s unfocused screenplay, but overall it does the job of making us like it’s central hero.  Shang-Chi really had a lot of hurdles to clear, especially with the fact that he is a mostly unknown character in comparison to say Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Panther.  In some respects, a better comparison for Shang-Chi would be what Marvel accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy.  Guardians also started off as a very obscure title that was elevated to new heights thanks to it’s placement in the MCU.  Now the whole world knows the team of the Guardians of the Galaxy and speaks of them in the same breath as the Avengers.  All it took was a well crafted movie that appealed to a broad audience, and the hope is that Shang-Chi can achieve the same outcome and move beyond just his own small but devoted fanbase.  It’s too early to tell if it will work, but if it does, a lot of good things will come of it.  Not only will it give Asian representation in Hollywood a big boost, but it will also help turn Shang-Chi into more than just a novelty character and instead put him in the same league as Marvel’s A-team.  Not only that, but it will also likely boost Simu Liu into another level of stardom, which he already seems to have deftly accomplished since being cast in the first place.  In addition, it will hopefully bring new eyes to a long history of Asian cinema, especially if it helps people rediscover the spectacular body of work that Tony Leung has amassed over the years.  So, even though I have some misgivings about the movie as a whole, I will certainly be extremely happy if this movie becomes a big hit for Marvel, not just for the sake of survival of the theatrical industry, but for all the good things it will do for Asian cinema in general, past and present.  In the end, that will be Shang-Chi’s most heroic accomplishment, and it’s something we should certainly be rooting for.

Rating: 7.75/10

The Suicide Squad – Review

The story of how The Suicide Squad made it to the big screen is just as wild and turbulent as what ended up in the final movie.  In the wake of Marvel’s unprecedented success over the last decade, rival DC comics sought to capitalize on their own legion of characters in the hopes that they weren’t going to fall too far behind.  Riding off the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, parent studio Warner Brothers began the master plan for a DC Extended Universe (the DCEU), which would take each of their most famous comic book characters and have them co-exist in a shared cinematic universe much in the same way that Marvel had done, in the hopes of capitalizing on the cross-over potential.  Though ambitious in scope, the execution would end up hitting a lot of snags along the way.  The first few films by director Zack Snyder (2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) received mixed to negative reviews and only managed to break even at the box office.  As a result of the lukewarm reception, Warner began to have second thoughts about their massive investment.  Studio execs started to become more hands on, and were quickly reworking movies already in production.  Sadly, one of the movies that was put through the wringer during this period of studio interference was the first Suicide Squad (2016) directed by David Ayer.  What started off as a darker toned action thriller was quickly reworked into a more comical, crowd-pleasing romp; a la Marvel.  The end result became an unfocused mess in the editing room that completely robbed the movie of a coherent tone, and as a result, DC had yet another film savaged by critics.  Thankfully the critically acclaimed Wonder Woman (2017) was on the horizon, and Warner Brothers along with DC would once again shift gears, but the damage had already been done to their reputation and Marvel continued to outpace them to record breaking box office.  But, after finding their footing in recent years, DC has found a groove that works for them, and that includes having the confidence to tackle the Suicide Squad once again.

One thing that DC did benefit from was a costly mistake on the part of Marvel’s parent company Disney.  In the midst of the rising disruption that came from the #MeToo movement in the late 2010’s, Disney was quick to avoid any controversy that came their way.  After a twitter spat between left-leaning filmmaker James Gunn and right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich, the latter dug up old tweets from the former where he made several gross and inappropriate jokes.  Despite Gunn’s justified assertion that these old tweets do not reflect the person that he is now, Disney was quick to action and immediately fired Gunn from all his upcoming projects at Marvel.  This rash action suddenly left a glaring vacancy in Marvel’s upcoming plans, because James Gunn was the creative mind behind one of their most celebrated franchises; the Guardians of the Galaxy.  Disney in retrospect has acknowledged that this was a major blunder on their part because they not only lost a premiere talent with Gunn, but they also disrupted the trust they had garnered with their most successful brand, who were not pleased with the move.  Despite what Disney did, the creative community had James Gunn’s back, with all the Guardians’ cast fully backing him publicly, and many film directors refusing to fill his shoes in the Guardians franchise.  But, someone was going to end up capitalizing on Disney’s misstep, and that was DC.  Within weeks, Warner Brothers snatched up James Gunn and offered him a project under their tent.  Given Gunn’s fascination with outsiders, he naturally was drawn to the Suicide Squad run of comics, and as a result, DC had the genius mind they needed to make a reboot work.  And Gunn gets to have his cake and eat it too, because Disney would reverse course months later, allowing Gunn to return to the Guardians’ franchise after his DC obligation.  So congratulations Cernovich, your petty, short lived twitter victory just allowed James Gunn to get two multi-million dollar deals at two major studios instead of one, which will make him more money than you will ever see in your lifetime as a lonely internet troll.  But, back on point, did Gunn’s jump from Marvel to DC translate over well, or did something get lost in between?

The movie itself is both a sequel and a reboot of sorts.  The events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad did still take place, and some of the past team members have returned.  This includes Captain Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnamann), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who have been assembled again by Intelligence Commander Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).  They are joined by a band of newcomers to the Suicide Squad team, which includes a couple of sharpshooting mercenaries called Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena), with immediate friction formed between the two.   Then there is the manic depressive Polka Dot Man (David Dasmalchin ) whose super powers are pretty self-explanatory.  There is Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchoir), who has carried on the mantle from her father (Taika Waititi) who had the power to command rats.  And we also have the half-man/ half-shark Nanaue, aka King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).  Rounding out the team are Savant (director Gunn regular Michael Rooker), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and Weasel (Sean Gunn), who is exactly what his name states.  They are all tasked with going to the enemy-infused island nation of Corto Maltese, which is in the midst of a bloody coup, and infiltrating a heavily fortified citadel called Jotenheim, where Amanda Waller wants them to destroy all traces of a secret program known only as Project Starfish.  In order to break in to the facility without alerting the Corto Maltese army, they must first find the lead scientist named Gaius Grieves, aka The Thinker (Peter Capaldi).  Of course, plans go awry and team members are lost or scatter to different parts of the island.  Unfortunately, because of the explosive devices that Ms. Waller has installed in each of their heads, the Suicide Squad must still carry out the mission against the odds.  As they go deeper into the island, and uncover more of it’s mystery, things grow increasingly more complex and allegiances challenged, especially when the truth of Project Starfish comes out and begins to wreck havoc on the island.  And that’s when things begin to really get weird.

It’s quite easy to see why James Gunn jumped at the opportunity to reimagine the Suicide Squad under his unique vision.  Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the members of the Suicide Squad are a bunch of outsiders that skirt the fine line between criminal and hero.  They are all inherently flawed from the outset, and yet through Gunn’s story-telling, we grow to love them as they prove their worth through using their eccentric tricks to take on a greater evil.  Also, James Gunn loves his irreverent humor, and DC was allowing him something that he couldn’t get away with at Marvel; the freedom of an R-rating.  Now he could get away with all the gore, violence and profanity that the Disney company would never allow in their PG-13 franchise.  Gunn is, after all, from the school of Troma Productions, a schlock film micro-budget studio where he originally cut his teeth as an amateur filmmaker.  Much of what he learned from his time at Troma has followed him through every film he has made, including the Guardians franchise.  He has even paid tribute to his mentor, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, by giving him cameos in his many films.  And while there are elements of Gunn’s Troma past in the Guardians franchise, The Suicide Squad is actually a far more representative film of Gunn’s lineage as a filmmaker.  And that is the main appeal of The Suicide Squad; it is James Gunn unfiltered.  Here, he is taking the kind of gory, demented mayhem that defined his earlier work and ramps it up with a more substantial budget afforded to him by Warner Brothers and DC.  This isn’t a movie deeply interwoven into the lore of DC’s expanded universe plans; this is just a director letting loose and having fun, and taking us all along for the ride.  If you were expecting something more akin to what he did with the Guardians of the Galaxy, you may be a little disappointed as well as a little horrified.  But that’s a good thing in the end, because James Gunn isn’t franchise building here.  He’s just giving us a delirious romp without compromise and showing us the Suicide Squad movie that we should have had in the first place.

One of the best aspects of James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is that he keeps things pretty simple.  For James Gunn, it’s not the plot itself that matters, but what the characters do along the way that moves the movie along.  It’s a pretty straight-forward plot, which Gunn then injects his hilarious character interactions with.  We know that eventually this band of rogue villains will have to end up saving the day, but the way they get there is often paved with hilarious bickering and character side-steps that throw the audience into unexpected places.  One of the biggest laughs in the movie involves how Polka Dot Man deals with his past trauma.  I won’t spoil what happens, but it is one of the most hilarious running sight gags in the movie, and exactly the kind of thing an oddball like James Gunn would come up with.  At times, the non-sequiturs do build up to a point where it does make the movie lag in the middle.  I would say that it’s less focused and on pace as his Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but at the same time, he’s working in an entirely different mode here, and it’s a bit unfair to compare with his other famous franchise.  Even still, the movie has a great first act and an absolutely amazing climax, but the middle part does slow things down a bit, like Gunn suddenly realized he needed to stretch things out a bit more.  But, even in it’s weaker moments, the movie still remains consistently funny, with some truly inspired ideas.  These include a fight sequence involving Harley Quinn that explodes with animated flower petals, as well as a hilariously staged ambush of a rebel base by Bloodsport and Peacemaker, with the two trying to one up the other with every kill.  And every moment that involves King Shark is a delight, even when it does grind the movie to a halt like a scene with him at an aquarium.  There are faults, but James Gunn just fills the movie with so many creative ideas, that you hardly think about them for long.

Of course, one of the things that you’d expect would deliver in a movie like this is the cast, and they do not disappoint.  Showing once again his deft command of an ensemble, James Gunn gets a lot of great performances out of faces both old and new to the franchise.  What is interesting is that he doesn’t use them all in the way you’d expect, which again is a major plus for the movie.  Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn for example is actually more of a supporting character this time around instead of a more centered focus that she fulfilled in the original Suicide Squad.  She is still a presence and appears throughout the whole movie with a good amount of screen-time, but Harley’s overall contribution to the plot amounts to pretty much a B Plot comparatively.  Even still, Margot Robbie is still in top form as the fan favorite villain, and she certainly looks like she’s having fun in every scene.  More character arcs are given to the other members, particularly Bloodpsort.  Idris Elba does a great job of balancing the heavier side of his character development with the comical Gunn asides.  And the normally brooding dramatic actor does not falter at all in carrying the wild tonal changes of the movie.  John Cena also delivers some hilarious one liners in the movie, with no hint of self-awareness which makes it funnier, though his performance can be a bit one note.  Of special note are Daniela Melchoir and David Dastmalchain as their respective characters.  Dastmalchain in particular finds some surprisingly deep pathos in what many people consider to be the lamest villain in the DC comics, and turns him into a really fascinating character overall.  And Melchoir gives her Ratcatcher so much warmth and heart that really endears her within this movie, especially in how she befriends King Shark.  King Shark likewise delights in this movie, functioning pretty much as the Groot of this DC comics film.  Also, bravo to James Gunn for bringing back Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, easily my favorite carry-over from the original Suicide Squad.  There is no one more perfect for that role, and Viola does not disappoint.  It’s also amazing how well she is able to work this character into the new tone of this franchise.  Like all the best comic book movies, a lot is dependent on how well these characters are cast, and James Gunn gave his actors a wealth of riches here.

It’s also interesting to see what James Gunn does differently here in regards to how the movie looks compared to what he’s done before.  In addition to carrying over his Troma refined sensibilities, Gunn has also drawn inspiration from another segment of cinema history.  There is a clear influence of exploitation war films in the DNA of this movie, even down to the way the entire movie looks.  There is a graininess to the picture that kind of gives the movie a grindhouse 16mm feel, even though Gunn actually shot the movie with digital Red cameras.  Judging by the promotional material of this movie, films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) were a clear inspiration, and it’s a style that perfectly fits this story.  This movie does involve guerilla combat in a hostile land, so it makes sense that it would emulate one of the grittiest war movies of all time.  Even when the movie expands in scope towards it’s finale, it still feels within character with what we’ve seen before.  Gunn carried over much of the same crew that he worked with on the two Guardians movies, and it’s really neat to see them work in a wildly different style as well.  The color palette is far more earthy and subdued than Guardians and that really helps to distinguish this as a bold new direction for this team, showcasing that they are capable of doing a whole variety of different kinds of movies.  I also want to point out the excellent music in this movie.  James Gunn of course famously injected many classic rock tunes into the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy, which became a part of that series’ identity.  He includes a few here too (including a great introduction scene underscored by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”), but not as much as you’d think.  Instead, a beautifully composed score by John Murphy, which also has some Dirty Dozen echoes, carries most of the movie.  It’s a great way to distinguish this from Gunn’s more mix-tape infused Guardians movies, and show that he’s not a one trick pony.  He can make a straight-forward action flick without turning it into a jukebox.  More importantly, the music is there to support the movie, and not actively work as a part of it, like how Guardians made it’s hero’s love of classic rock a major part of his character.  It’s a movie heavy on style, but never wasted and it overall works to give The Suicide Squad a delightful sense of character that stands on it’s own.

Though the way we ended up getting this movie involved a lot of backstage drama, I am in the end grateful that we now have someone as talented as James Gunn having contributed to both Marvel and DC.  I especially love the fact that this whole episode just shows how much filmmakers should be valued in this business.  The reason why the original Suicide Squad  fell short was not because David Ayer failed to deliver, but because he had the opportunity to do things his own way taken away from him and given to uninspired studio execs who were only caring about their bottom line.  The same thing ended up happening all over DC in those earlier days, with Zack Snyder’s mangled Justice League (2017) being perhaps the most notorious example.  Since then, Warner Brothers has somewhat learned it’s lesson and allowed filmmakers to have a bit more creative freedom over the final product.  This even included a significant investment by the studio to allow Zack Snyder to finish his vision of Justice League with his now infamous “Snyder Cut,” and David Ayer is now trying to argue for the same opportunity to finish his original vision of Suicide Squad.  Luckily for James Gunn, he entered into an atmosphere of creative freedom at Warner Brothers that wasn’t there before and has been able to capitalize on that with this far more engaging take on the Suicide Squad series.  It’s not a perfect movie, and I dare say I still prefer his Guardians movies, but this is still an exceptional work that showcases that he’s not just a one franchise filmmaker.  He can be trusted to bring the best out of any kind of franchise, and that is definitely going to help his stock within the industry.  In the long run, he has ultimately shown that creative vision matters, and that perhaps studio interference is never a good thing for the movies in general.  I am definitely excited to see what he’ll take from this experience when he returns to Marvel to make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  Hopefully this unusual experience has only sharpened his skills further, and that there is going to be even more great things to come in that beloved Marvel series.  Until then, The Suicide Squad shows that he is still an amazing creative force no matter where he is working, and it’s worth seeing, especially on the biggest possible screen you can find.  You can’t keep a creative mind down for long, especially one as dementedly off the wall that James Gunn holds inside his head.

Rating: 8.5/10

Black Widow – Review

It is pretty remarkable to look back and see where Marvel had managed to get to in 2019.  It was closing out the Phase Three era with the conclusion of it’s Infinity Stone storyline that had crossed over nearly two dozen films over 10 years.  With the double whammy releases of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios claimed the crown as the ultimate kings of the box office.  But they weren’t done yet.  Even as Endgame put a nice button on all the events that had led up to it, Marvel was still setting the stage for what was going to come next.  On the horizon was Phase Four, which looked to be even more ambitious than what Marvel had done before, expanding their cinematic universe even further (and even into a multiverse).  The ambitious plan not only called for continued stories on the big screen, but also mini-series releases streaming on Disney+, the platform of Marvel’s parent company.  Given how huge a year Marvel had in 2019, with an extra assist from Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), it only looked like the next year was going to be even grander.  Cue global pandemic.  The Covid-19 virus outbreak ground everything to a halt, including Marvel’s plans for the year 2020.  Every planned release in that year had to be pushed back, including the ones that were done and in the can.  For the first time since 2009, we had a year without anything new from Marvel Studios.  After a decade long run of dominance, this was an unusual sight.  But, as the pandemic has thankfully waned, those delayed projects are also finally making their way to audiences, although done in a way that none of the team at Marvel likely intended.  Instead of relying on cinemas, which are still recovering, Marvel launched Phase Four instead on Disney+ with Wandavision, and continued through the Spring and Summer with The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki series; none of which were supposed to lead the charge originally.  Instead, that distinction was originally intended for a movie that finally gives the spotlight to one of the founding members of the Avengers: Black Widow (2021).

Black Widow’s history in the MCU goes almost all the way back to it’s very beginning.  She made her first appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) played by Scarlett Johansson, who would continue on through the next ten years, playing the character in several crossover events during that time.  Though not given much to do in her first outing, Black Widow’s presence grew over time in the MCU, eventually becoming one of the six original Avengers.  And though Scarlett Johansson brought a great amount of strength to her performance, there has been an unfortunate aspect to Black Widow’s place within the MCU.  She essentially was there in the beginning to be eye candy for the male centric audiences that Super Hero movies originally catered to, especially when you take notice of the skin tight costumes she used to wear and the provocative hero stances she would pose in the movies.  Not only that, but there was an element of tokenism with her placement in the team.  But, thanks to Scarlett’s influence over the character, she was able to rise above these controversial aspects of the character, and helped to make Black Widow not only a standout in the Avengers team, but also an essential member who takes on leadership, even over those more physically powerful than her.  And in turn, Black Widow became a positive role model for young girls who over the last ten years have become the most rapidly growing segment of comic book fandom.  Not only that, women were now pushing to tell their own stories their own way within the genre.  She was the trendsetter in proving that these movies were not just for teenage boys anymore; they were for everyone.  So, over time, demand grew higher for Black Widow to get a movie of her own, which Marvel eventually agreed to.  Despite the long wait that resulted from the 2020 pandemic, we are now finally able to see Black Widow take to the big screen in her own story.  The only question is, is it a story worth telling or is it one that doesn’t do justice to a character we’ve grown to love over the last 10 years.

There are some small spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Avengers: Infinity War, as this story takes place in between the two.  Following the events of Civil War, which saw the break-up of the Avengers and leading the likes of Captain America, The Falcon, and Ant-Man to become fugitives of the law, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow, also finds herself on the run, after she helped the others escape by attacking Black Panther.  Now a fugitive herself, she is having to escape General Ross (William Hurt) and his forces, who are in hot pursuit.  With the help of her tech engineer Mason (O-T Fagbenle), she manages to find a safe haven off the grid, but the peace and quiet doesn’t last long.  After receiving a mysterious package from an unknown sender, she is immediately attacked by a masked assassin known as Taskmaster, who has the special ability to mimic any fight move against an opponent.  After evading Taskmaster, Natasha follows some clues to that leads her to another safe house in Budapest.  There she meets up with the one who sent the package, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another Widow assassin who shares a history with Natasha, as they were pretend sisters in a sleeper cell family cover set up by the Russians 30 years ago in rural America.  Yelena thought she could trust Natasha with the package, which contains vials of a mysterious red liquid, because of her Avengers connections, but Taskmaster and other Widow agents have caught up to them.  After nearly escaping, Yelena tells Natasha that the Red Room where both of them received their training is still operational, and under the stewardship of notorious Russian criminal Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who Natasha thought she had already assassinated years ago in a mission that granted her a place in S.H.I.E.L.D.  They resolve to take Dreykov and the Red Room down, and to do that, they need the help of the two people who pretended to be their parents all those year ago; Alexei (David Harbour) who was Red Guardian (Russia’s answer to Captain America), and Melina (Rachel Weisz) who is still Dreykov’s chemical expert.  With the “family” back together, will they be able to take down the mighty machine that is the Red Room, as well as their ultimate weapon, the Taskmaster.

Part of the excitement surrounding the release of Black Widow is the fact that we had to wait so long for it to happen.  In addition to the tragic consequences of what the pandemic did to the theatrical industry, it was also just strange not having anything from Marvel for over a year after they had been so omnipresent in the years before.  There were several worries over that time that Marvel was going to just end up skipping theaters overall and release Black Widow on streaming, which would’ve been a devastating blow for the theaters.  But, thankfully Marvel and Disney remained resolute in giving Black Widow the big screen treatment, though they did have to compromise with a hybrid Disney+ Premiere Access release as well.  After multiple date shifts, we now are able to see the movie that we’ve long been waiting for.  But after a year of delays, how does the movie play today after all that has gone down.  To be honest, I think the delay may have actually favored Black Widow in the long run, because had it come out in the summer of 2020 right on the heels of what we got from Avengers: Endgame, I think audiences might have been a little underwhelmed by this movie.  Black Widow is a serviceable movie, but not a big game-changer like many of the more recent Marvel movies we’ve been seeing.  It’s giving us more or less a Marvel version of a Jason Bourne movie.  It does fit with the character of Black Widow, but there’s not a whole lot beyond that as something that fits within a larger Marvel narrative.  Essentially, we are just seeing a stand alone side story focused on Black Widow  and nothing more.  It might be satisfying to many, and there is plenty within the movie that does satsify long time fans; but anyone expecting huge earth-shattering twists and turns should probably look elsewhere.  It’s hard to say how that would’ve played out in 2020 with Endgame so fresh in people’s minds.  With a little extra distance from that monumental achievement, a more standard film like Black Widow plays a little bit better, and removed from it’s original intention of launching Phase Four also helps the movie out as well.  It’s a movie that in many ways feels like an obligation, but even still, it works on it’s own merits.

The one nagging aspect of the movie is the question of whether it was a story that needed to be told.  It’s kind of strange watching this movie after having seen Endgame because (spoilers), Natasha ends up sacrificing her life to see the mission to it’s end.  Knowing that, it takes away some of the drama surrounding her character in this movie.  We know she’s going to live by the end of this story so that she could be a part of Infinity War and Endgame, and we also know that beyond that she no longer will be a part of the cinematic universe due to her death in Endgame.  So, Black Widow is a story very much out of place in the continuing Marvel storyline.  It’s like Marvel intended this story to be made way back in Phase Three, but the train had already left the station and they couldn’t make any more room for Black Widow’s story, so this movie is a make-up for having missed the stop before.  Honestly, I wish there was more to this movie, because a character like Black Widow and her actress Scarlett Johansson deserves a better sendoff than just a basic spy thriller.  She’s one of the original Avengers; a character that has done so much to increase female representation in Comic Book movies.  The movie Black Widow just assumes that audiences will accept it’s awkward placement in the timeline, which I’m sure that many will, but a character like her should have been given a more monumental sendoff.  Still, Marvel isn’t delivering a bad movie by any means.  There is still plenty to enjoy in the movie, with the usual slick balance between action, comedy, and suspense that Marvel has excelled at.  As a swan song, it falls short, but as an action packed spy thriller, it is definitely better than most.  You just have to go in with tempered expectations, because this movie is just going to deliver enough to warrant your time, but not enough to place it within the all time greatness of Marvel at it’s peak.

One troubling thing you’ll notice while watching the movie is that Black Widow is the least interesting character in the movie.  True, most of her character development has been spread out over the ten years that she was a part of the Avengers team, but even still, it’s a shame that she doesn’t command an even greater presence in her own movie.  The more meaty character development here belongs to the members of her “family,” which really belies the true intention of this movie; it’s here to pass the baton to the next generation.  It’s very clear that Florence Pugh’s Yelena is being set up as Scarlett Johansson’s successor in the Black Widow role in future Marvel projects.  And in that regard, the movie does do a very good job establishing her.  Yelena is great character, which Pugh plays to perfection.  She’s tough, funny, and more than holds her own in any conflict.  Her future is going to be pretty bright in the MCU, and I’m happy that she makes the obvious changing of the guard aspect of this movie feel earned.  David Harbour’s Alexei is also a great addition, as he provides a lot of the comic relief in this movie, as well as a genuine bit of charming vulnerability that makes his a character worth rooting for.  I especially love his fixation on how he stacks up against Captain America, with him at one point asking Natasha straight up, “Does he talk about me much?” much to her annoyance.  Rachel Weisz has much less of a presence in the movie, but she does use it well.  Indeed the best part of the movie is seeing this dysfunctional faux family come together and work off each other.  It does offer a little insight into Natasha’s character as well, and why protecting family is important to her.  Being an orphan who had her childhood stolen from her, she would do anything to protect any semblance of family that she had, and in time, she managed to become a part of two families of her own choosing; the one in this film and the Avengers.  Sadly the biggest letdown in the cast are the villains.  Ray Winstone is a great actor but here he is just a stock villain, which is disappointing after a string of strong Marvel baddies like Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela just to name a few.  And though Taskmaster looks pretty badass, there isn’t a whole lot beyond that, and the mystery of who is behind the mask is easily pieced together.  It’s a mixed bag, but thankfully the best characters in the movie are going to be the ones that have a future in the long run with Marvel.

As far as the action goes, the movie lacks the grandiosity of Marvel’s more out-there projects, but that’s kind of the point.  Black Widow is a much more grounded film, taking it’s visual cues from the likes of the previously mentioned Jason Bourne movies, as well as some James Bond and a little sprinkling of Mission: Impossible.  Director Cate Shortland proves to be perfectly capable of making these big set pieces work, but what I find she does best with are the more intimate action beats in the movie.  My favorite fight is actually one between Natasha and Yelena early in the movie.  It’s a scene that shows you don’t have to rely upon a bunch of CGI tech wizardry to pull a suspenseful scene off.  Sometimes you just need two really skilled stunt women throwing each other against the walls.  There’s also a really solid car chase through the streets of Budapest that rivals any that I’ve seen in other spy thrillers.  It’s at the point where CGI becomes ever more present that I think Shortland begins to lose her grasp of the action, and unfortunately that’s what makes up the final act of the movie.  The finale is honestly one of the messiest and least affecting that I have ever seen from Marvel, and it’s one of the main reasons why it knocked the movie down a peg for me with regards to other Marvel films.  Marvel, especially in recent years, has done a stellar job with building their movies up to satisfying resolutions, especially in the last two Avengers flicks.  But the finale to Black Widow is just loud and dumb, and so far removed from the grounded reality that made the rest of the movie work as well as it did.  It makes it even less effective when the movie just wraps everything up in a pat resolution, like the writers realized they needed to quickly wrap things up, and the audience is left wondering, “was that it?”  Overall, it is pleasing to see this kind of genre made through the guidance of women behind the camera just as much as in front of it.  Shortland, despite her lack of long term experience with action thrillers, does actually deliver some tense scenes that are on par with the genre.  But, given the way the movie ends, the whole thing turns out to be a mixed bag.

So, fair warning, don’t go into this movie expecting another Avengers level event.  It’s a perfectly serviceable movie in the Marvel canon, but nothing truly spectacular.  Like I mentioned before, the delay may have done the movie a service, because the pressure to follow up on Endgame was taken off of it’s shoulders.  Because of Marvel’s stellar track record, I think it’s at the point where we have to judge these movies on a curve compared to other Hollywood movies, much like what we do with Pixar now.  Compared to other spy thrillers out there, Black Widow is certainly a cut above, and especially groundbreaking in the fact that it shows this genre through a female perspective.  But, as a Marvel movie, I’m sorry to say that it actually falls into the bottom half.  It’s not bad by any means, but it falls short of the high bar that Marvel has set for itself.  It’s especially disappointing in the fact that it is the last we’ll ever see of Natasha Romanoff in the MCU.  What Scarlett Johansson has brought to the character over the last ten years should not be understated.  She transformed a sexist old trope into a genuine positive role model that has transformed the Marvel fandom for the better and opened the door for so many more female super heroes in her wake.  Marvel should have honestly given us a little more to digest than a “look what she was doing after Civil War” storyline.  I would’ve liked to have seen more of her backstory with regards to how she left the Red Room and joined S.H.I.E.L.D.  There’s so much to be mined there like what made her turn and how did she befriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  They could have also done a soul-searching story about how she learned to cope with the tragedy that took place at the end of Infinity War.  Overall, I feel like there were better stories to tell than the one we got in this movie.  Natasha deserved better.  Even still, as a set-up for the future Black Widow adventures for Yelena, it does the job well enough.  Of course, there’s a not to be missed end credits scene that does indeed set up the next chapter.  Despite it’s disappointing elements, it is satisfying to see Marvel return to the cinemas once again after such a trying period.  And with exciting things on the horizon like Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals and sequels to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Thor in the near future, along with all the Disney+ projects upcoming, Marvel is going to do just fine regardless how this movie performs.  As of now, it should be noted that despite it’s shortcomings, Black Widow magnificently sends off Scarlett Johansson’s decade long legacy as Natasha Romanoff with a movie that firmly establishes all the great changes she brought to the character that made her an icon for a generation.  It was perhaps a little too late, but better now than never and hopefully it’s the start of greater things down the road for Black Widow in the MCU.

Rating: 7.5/10

Luca – Review

It’s been a rough pandemic year for the Pixar Animation studios.  The Emeryville, California based animation giant has set a high bar for the industry over the past quarter century, and 2020 was set to be a big year for them.  They had two highly anticipated animated features lined up that were set to continue their hot streak at the box office.  The first of the two, Onward, made it to cinemas in early March of 2020.  And then the whole world came crashing down.  Movie theaters were shut for an indeterminable amount of time, which would end up being over a year in the end, and every movie playing immediately before the shut down suddenly had their box office returns cut short.  Onward, the last major studio film released before the shutdown, wound up with the lowest box office totals of any Pixar movie to date, but it was clear that it was not the films fault.  Like everything else in the 14 months that followed, Hollywood had to gauge a whole new way to measure success under the new pandemic affected conditions.  Would Onward had performed better if the pandemic hadn’t gotten in the way?  We’ll never know.  However, once the pandemic hit, parent company Disney made the controversial decision to accelerate Onward’s  streaming debut on Disney+, foregoing the usual 3 month exclusive theatrical window, just so that people who missed out on seeing it in the theater would have a chance to watch it at home.  Though the movie theaters were worried that this would change the dynamic of the exhibition market, they at the same time had little say in the matter.  Onward made it’s debut and for all accounts it performed well enough for Disney to do the same with a couple other films waiting in the wings.  Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) saw their streaming premieres also accelerated, though they benefitted from full box office performances beforehand.  And movies that Disney didn’t mind skipping theaters all together with (Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan) were also brought directly to Disney+.  But the question remained, what was Disney going to do with the other highly anticipated Pixar animated film for the year 2020; that being the Pete Doctor-directed Soul.

Soul was undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two 2020 movies, dealing with heavier themes than Onward and with a more ethereal canvas of design and concept.  It’s also clear having seen it that Soul was a movie made for the big screen, with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious scale.  But, with the pandemic shutdowns extending well beyond what anyone thought was possible, Disney and Pixar needed to make a hard choice.  Do they continue to keep pushing Soul back on the calendar, or do they skip theaters all together.  Soul did move a couple times off it’s original June 2020 release date.  It first landed in late August, and then again moving to Thanksgiving weekend.  With theaters still closed all the way to the holidays, Pixar ultimately made the tough choice to put Soul out exclusively on Disney+, without a premium fee to offset lost box office.  It was determined that Disney would benefit with the extra boost in subscriptions by having a Pixar title premiere on their platform, and given the previous success over the year with other premieres, and the fact that any more delays would work against other movies in the pipeline, the tough choice had to be made.  It must had been hard especially for Pixar head Pete Doctor, since Soul was his own baby.  But, despite missing out in theaters, Soul still found it’s audience, and led to Doctor winning a record third Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  But, the precedent set by putting Soul out on streaming led to Disney feeling more comfortable with the model, and it was announced soon after that the next Pixar movie in line, Luca, would also be skipping a theatrical release in favor of streaming.  This left a lot of people at Pixar rightfully upset, especially by the fact that it was not getting the hybrid streaming/theatrical release that Disney’s own Raya and the Last Dragon received.  And with movie theaters finally reopening, and showing signs of a quick recovery, it seemed like Disney was making a shortsighted choice, robbing a movie that would play magnificently on the big screen a chance to prove itself.  But, as it stands, Luca is making it’s debut this weekend in living rooms across the world rather than the cinema, and now we can determine for ourselves whether or not Disney’s choice was a sound one or the wrong one.

Luca takes place on the picturesque Italian Riviera, near and within a small little fishing village called Portorusso.  Unbeknownst to the fishermen who sail the coastline of the their village, there is a whole other community beneath the waves; one made entirely of sea monsters.  In this community, we find Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a timid young sea monster who is afraid of what lies beyond the water’s surface.  However, curiosity leads him to discover a bunch of artifacts from the human world, which he discovers are being collected by another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer).  To Luca’s surprise and amazement, he watches Alberto carefreeingly leaving the ocean and walking on land.  Alberto forces Luca up with him and the newcomer soon discovers that his scale-ly skin transforms on land to human like skin when it’s dry.  Alberto helps Luca learn more about the human world and the two form a friendship, though it’s kept secret from Luca’s protective mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan).  When Luca’s parents learn of his deception and threaten to send him to live with his deep sea Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen), Luca runs away and convinces Alberto that they should pursue their shared dream; riding across the world on a Vespa scooter.  They make their way to Portorusso, in the hopes of getting a Vespa of their own.  There they meet a young human girl named  Giulia (Emma Berman), who is obsessed with winning the Portorusso Cup challenge, especially if it means besting the town bully, Ercole Visconti (Servio Raimondo).  Giulia takes the two in with the hopes of helping them train as a team.  At Giulia’s home, they meet her father Massimo, a one-armed fisherman and cook who’s got his eye on slaying the rumored sea monsters in the area, as does his suspecting cat Machiavelli, whose got his keen eye on the two outsiders.  Meanwhile Daniela and Lorenzo search the town for their lost son.  For Luca and Alberto, the challenge becomes whether or not they can keep their secret safe and achieve their dream in the human world, and more crucially, can they keep themselves dry in a town where water is literally all around them.

Regardless of how it makes it’s way to the audience, there is no doubt that the bar is always high when it comes to Pixar.  They are one of the standard bearers in Animation, in a class that is only matched with sister studio Disney and few others; possibly smaller players like Laika and Studio Ghibli.  Especially coming off the heals of a beloved movie like Soul, there is a lot of expectations about what Pixar can bring to the table next with a movie like Luca.  So it is with great relief that Pixar not only clears the high bar with Luca, it does so in spectacular fashion.  Luca is an all around triumph from beginning to end.  The movie was directed by Enrico Casarosa, a long time story artist at Pixar making his directorial debut.  Luca clearly is a love letter to the director’s native homeland, where he spent his childhood growing up in the coastal city of Genoa on Italy’s majestic Portofino coastline.  Though not the first time that Pixar has infused such a cultural presence into one of their stories (see also 2012’s Brave and 2017’s Coco), Luca takes on an especially personal touch, with so much attention to detail put into the world of this story.  The movie is set in a particular time and place, that being Italy in the late 50’s and early 60’s, which I’m sure is a very intentional choice on Casarosa’s part.  The movie is heavily inspired by Italian New Wave cinema, and in particular, the movies of Federico Fellini.  You can feel the influence of Fellini throughout the movie, from the colorful characters to the lush coastal setting, to even the music choices.  Casarosa even throws in some charming Easter eggs for cinephiles out there, like movie posters for Roman Holiday (1953) and La Starda (1953) plastered on the walls.  Other cinematic influences are plentiful as well, like Machiavelli the Cat who I swear is designed exactly to be nod to the animation style of Hayao Miyazaki.  Suffice to say, the movie is a feast for the senses in the best way that Pixar knows how to do.

But on top of that, it also features a wonderful story built upon an intriguing concept.  Essentially, it’s a story about breaking free of barriers, both internal and external.  Luca begins his journey unaware of the larger world around, and the potential for adventures that he may have.  One of the crucial things that he picks up with his experiences with Alberto is to push against those inhibitions that cause him to be fearful of the world.  In a funny explanation, Alberto calls that inner voice that tells Luca “no” about everything Bruno, and he instructs Luca to repeat to himself, “Silencio Bruno” as a way of moving past his fears.  Over time, “Silencio Bruno” becomes a mantra for the two boys and it enables them to grow bolder over the course of the movie.  It’s a very uplifting element to the story, and as we see, Luca is far more brave than he ever thought he would be, which enables him to move beyond the limits that others have forced upon him.  Though Enrico Casarossa insists it was never intended this in his original story, and perhaps it might be my own self reading too much into the movie as well, but I sensed a subtle queer subtext in Luca’s story.  Trust me, the friendship between Luca and Alberto is strictly platonic, but there is something very familiar in how both of the boys overcome societies barriers in order to find acceptance for who they really are, especially in a town that views them first and foremost as monsters.  It’s also a story about Luca discovery his true self by finding friends who encourage his adventurous side, and help him to break free from a sheltered life where he might not have known what he was really capable of.  To many LGBTQ people in the audience, this will ring true with many coming out journeys that each of them have had.  Though it wasn’t intended to be the message, I still think Pixar wouldn’t dismiss such a reading either, as Disney has at times leaned into the many different queer readings of their own films like The Little Mermaid (1989) or Frozen (2013), without ever discouraging it.  It’s not quite a PG-rated  Call Me By Your Name (2017), but I think there might be something worthwhile there that many queer people, especially the youngest one, will find uplifting in Luca’s story.

The movie’s characters are also uniformly excellent.  Luca is an especially endearing lead, as his curiosity to discover new things is delightfully entertaining.  Jacob Tremblay brings an especially exuberant vocal performance to the character, bringing out all the different angles of the character in a joyful, heartwarming way.  He deftly manages to capture Luca’s timidness perfectly early one and as he grows more bolder, we feel that growth within the character  through that performance.  His vocal work is also equally matched by Jack Dylan Grazer’s Alberto, where he perfectly embodies that identity of that kind of older “bad influence” kid that we all know.  Like Jacob, Jack also perfectly finds that fully fleshed out character inside, managing to make the character hilarious but also vulnerable when he needs to be.  Emma Berman’s Giulia rounds out the trio with a wonderfully exuberant performance as well.  I especially like how she slips into Italian frequently whenever she grows frustrated, like she’s using it as a substitute for cursing.  Her tomboyish personality really works well off of the personalities of Luca and Alberto, especially with the fact that the two often don’t know how to respond around her sometimes  unexpected personality quirks.  The always reliable Maya Rudolph is perfect here in the role of the mother, and Jim Gaffigan is hilariously subdued in his role as the father.  We also get a quick but hilariously demented cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as Luca’s bottom feeding Uncle.  If the movie has a weak link, it’s the villainous Ercole, who in many ways is just an afterthought in the story, as the filmmakers believed that the movie needed a more definable antagonist.  He’s serviceable, but not much else; a far cry from some of Pixar’s more memorable baddies like Syndrome from The Incredibles (2004) and Lotso from Toy Story 3 (2010).  I also want to specially point out the cat Machiavelli, who is a straight-up scene stealer in Luca.  Some of the biggest laughs I had were the glaring stares he gives to Luca and Alberto in the movie.  Overall, another beautiful cast of characters to add to the growing Pixar family.

It should also be said that this is one of the most absolutely beautiful movies that Pixar has ever made, and that’s saying a lot.  The real life influence of the Italian coastal setting was no doubt instrumental in creating the world of this film.  It evokes a definitive time and place, but also imbues it with a storybook like feel.  That is also true with the designs of the characters as well.  These character models are far more stylized that what we see with most Pixar characters.  The character’s features are fare less contoured and more rounded out, with Luca’s head almost taking on a tomato-like shape.  It perfectly mixes with the different designs that Luca and Alberto go through as they transform between sea creature and human, allowing the audience to never get confused about who they are seeing on screen at any time.  I also like that the quirky character designs extend to the humans as well, like they are pulled out of a story book as well.  The way that everyone is animated is also more cartoonish and stylized than the average Pixar movie, which more often tries to go for realism in their character movement.  Even so, this movie is still unmistakably Pixar to it’s very core.  You’ll especially find it in how they still manage to convey deep emotion, even through the exaggerated character models.  Though it doesn’t quite tug on the heartstrings as hard as say Up (2009) or Coco (2017), there are still some beautifully emotional moments in this movie, especially in the closing moments.  It may not be a tear-jerker, but it will make you feel especially warm inside as you see the characters find their place in the larger world, and in some cases, find that they must leave something behind.  It pretty much delivers everything that you want from a Pixar movie, but it does so in a way you don’t quite expect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if more Pixar movies in the future adopt a more stylized look like what we see in Luca, because this movie certainly showed that the studio can still deliver no matter how much one of their movies breaks the mold.

I certainly feel like Luca stands as one of the better Pixar movies overall.  It may not be in the top flight, but it is certainly not far behind and many lightyears beyond what most other studios are making.  It just really saddens me that most people are not going to be enjoying this movie on a big screen, which it should honestly be playing on right now.  Living in Los Angeles, I fortunately managed to see it the right way as one, and only one, theater in town has this playing on a big screen; that being the historic El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard (owned and operated by Disney, of course).  Seeing the movie that way probably helped me to appreciate the movie even more, and it is absolutely worth the effort if you live near Hollywood and there are still tickets available for it’s lone, single week engagement.  For anyone else, please watch this movie on the largest television that you have.  Watching it on anything smaller or handheld will really rob you of the majesty of this beautiful film.  It’s just too bad that a worthy animated movie like Luca is being relegated to streaming while a mediocre film like Dreamworks’ Spirit Untamed is getting a wide theatrical release.  Yeah, sure, Spirit’s lackluster box office is not something to instill confidence on a box office that is still in recovery mode.  But had Luca been given a shot, it might have ignited the box office in ways that other movies have failed to.  This may end up being a tale of a missed opportunity on Pixar’s part, and I hope that this is not the preferred mode of release for all Pixar movies moving forward.  It was a hard pill to swallow for Soul too, but the conditions were understandable.  It makes less sense now as times are changing, and Disney has already proven success with movies already released through their hybrid model like Raya and Cruella (2021).  In any case, Luca should not be missed.  It’s another triumphant original for the legendary studio, with a heartwarming story, which may also resonate with subtly with LGBTQ audiences who recognize a coming out story when they see one, even if it’s young sea monsters leaving the ocean instead of a closet.  Regardless of it’s intended message, it’s a beautifully constructed crowd pleaser that everyone should see.  And given that it’s about venturing outside of the comforts of a sheltered life, it’s a story that gives us more hope in a post pandemic world.  Without a doubt, a certifiable win for Pixar and a movie that deserves more than the circumstances it’s been given.  Silencio Bruno!!!

Rating: 9/10

In the Heights – Review

It’s amazing to think how much the stage musical has had in forming the soundtrack of our culture over the last century.  You may be listening to or singing a song that is omnipresent in our everyday lives, and not even know that it had it’s beginnings on Broadway.  For many years, musical theater was the premiere form of entertainment until cinema came along.  After the advent of the talking picture, musicals found a new venue, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood began pooling in talent who normally would be writing music for the stage.  But, Broadway didn’t dissipate in the face of this change.  Instead, it evolved and became even more ambitious over the years.  And after a while, Hollywood began to take notice and spent millions to bring these blockbuster musicals to the big screen.  These lavish musicals brought out the best in Hollywood, as it turned out to be a good way to promote these new technological advancements like stereo sound and widescreen.  Through the 50’s and 60’s, it became a symbiotic relationship between these two coastal powers; Broadway would produce a certified hit on the stage and then Hollywood would bring it further to the masses on the big screen.  And it propelled the people who made these musicals for the stage into household names: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Stephen Sondheim, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and many more.  Though the musical is resilient, it nevertheless has gone through many changes in order to survive the varying shifts in the culture.  Sometimes that even includes compromising between art and commerce, such as favoring something with a built in audience over something experimental for investment.  This has been the case when we see musicals brought to the stage that are either based on an already established franchise or are delivered by a major studio like Disney or Universal instead of an independent theater troupe.  But still, each generation does see a gamechanger rise out of the industry and pushes the artform to a whole different level.  And that man of the moment for the Broadway musical today happens to be a multi-talented performer named Lin-Manuel Miranda.

New York City native Miranda was raised in the shadow of Broadway all of his life and he’s certainly brought a lot of his own upbringing into his work.  The son of Puerto Rican Americans who emigrated from one island to another, he was raised in a culturally diverse setting that exposed him to a variety of sounds that he would over time fuse together in very interesting ways.  He was schooled in the melodies of the latin beat, hip hop, rap, and yes of course, Broadway show tunes.  And being the unashamed nerd that he is proud to proclaim he is, he even cites stuff like Star Wars and Saturday morning cartoons as inspirations for his art.  And all of it has made him one of the most exciting and innovate voices in the world of theater in a generation.  Thus far, he has written and starred only two musicals for the Broadway stage, but both have been blockbuster hits, making him two for two for Best Musical at the Tony Awards.  The latter of the two, Hamilton, in particular has been the show that has turned him into a household name.  It’s ingenious mix of music styles (with a strong emphasis on hip hop) infused into a story about the American Revolution, and in particular it’s central figure of founding father Alexander Hamilton, just blew everyone away when it first premiered on Broadway in 2015.  And even six years after it’s premiere, it is still a high in demand show, with post-Covid return dates already selling out fast.  Miranda, of course, has not slowed down since.  He immediately launched into a successful transition into Hollywood, gaining a strong collaborative relationship with Disney, writing new songs and even appearing on screen in stuff like Mary Poppins Returns (2018).  And just this year, he’s got a whole bunch of new projects lined up, including his directorial debut, Tick, Tick…Boom (2021) for Netflix, as well as musical scores for two animated films, Vivo for Sony Animation and Encanto for Disney.  But, what is eagerly anticipated right now is a big screen adaptation of the first musical that put him on the map, long before Hamilton.  It’s the semi-autobiographical In the Heights, and people are eager to see if Lin-Manuel Miranda can successfully bring something he made for the stage to the big screen without it loosing any of it’s original charm.

Like Miranda’s own life story, In the Heights is a story about the people who live in the closely knit neighborhood of Washington Heights.  The Heights as they call them sits at the very northern tip of the Island of Manhattan, across the Harlem River from the Bronx, and it has always been a traditionally immigrant neighborhood in New York City.  In the few square blocks of the Heights, you’ll find people who have emmigrated from or are descendents of people from all over Latin America; Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, etc., all hoping to achieve a piece of the American dream.  But despite all the differences between them, the community acts like a family, all looking out for each other.  At it’s heart is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) a bodega merchant whose store is a hub of activity for the neighborhood.  His clientele, and extended quasi-family, includes his friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher for a local cab company; Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smitts), Benny’s boss and father of Benny’s crush, Nina (Leslie Grace), who has returned home from attending college at Stanford; the salon girls Daniela, Carla and Cuca (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beritz, and Dascha Polanco) who work with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who Usnavi has a crush on; and finally, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz) the neighborhood’s adopted matriarch.  Though each of them are there for each other, the characters also have their dreams of moving beyond their hard-knock lives in a neighborhood that is increasingly starting to price them out through gentrification.  For Usnavi, he is right on the verge of making his dream come true.  He’s secured a lease on the old bar that his father used to run in the Dominican Republic in the hopes of revitalizing it and upholding the legacy his family had to put on hold in order to live in America.  Within a matter of days, he’s moving out of the neighborhood and leaving the Heights behind.  But a confluence of events with the people he loves and lives around makes him start to question his future.  By the end, he must decide if El Suenito (or “Little Dream”) is more important to him than what he leaves behind in the Heights itself.

When watching In the Heights, you can definitely see the beginnings of what Lin-Manuel Miranda would later build upon in Hamilton.  His mix of traditional Broadway and hip hop is a style that is uniquely him, and it’s definitely a major part of the musical make-up of In the Heights.  The movie version of this releasing this year is certainly a wealth of riches for any Miranda fan out there, but it is interesting that it wasn’t originally set to release so close to everything else he has in the pipeline.  This was one of those 2020 exiles that had to be pushed back because of the pandemic, and surprisingly in it’s place, we got an unexpected Lin-Manuel placeholder in the middle of that summer season.  Disney+ pushed ahead a planned release of a filmed version of the Hamilton musical on stage to give everyone something exciting to watch while we were all stuck at home.  This was both a blessing and a negative for the uprooted Heights, because one the accessibility of Hamilton now increased awareness of Lin-Manuel’s artistry and made that musical even more popular, but at the same time, it was raising the bar higher for a movie that was supposed to be seen first.  Now that it is finally making it to theaters, in a hybrid release with HBO Max, does In the Heights hold up well to the hype.  I’d say so, though I do feel like it falls short of all-time greatness.  As an exercise in adapting a stage musical for the big screen, I’d say that it does it’s job spectacularly well.  Director Jon M. Chu, who cut his teeth making music videos and dance movies like Step Up (2006) certainly knows how to stage a musical number and with a lot of panache.  You can see inspirations from Busby Berkeley to Jerome Robbins throughout each show stopping musical number, which all works to the movie’s favor as it tries to translate what worked on the stage into something that will work on the screen (which is not as easy as it sounds).  What’s more important is that it compliments Miranda’s music perfectly, matching the energy of the melodies with the flourish of the visuals.  Even if there are things that the movie may fall short on, it at the very least remains entertaining.  And there are plenty of moments throughout where the movie really does soar and takes your breath away.

Unfortunately, the musical moments may be a little too good in this movie, because it ends up minimizing everything else in between.  Whenever the movie goes into dramatic, dialogue driven mode, it does kind of deflate, and you are just hoping that another musical number will bring it back to roaring life.  The non-musical moments are not necessarily bad; they have some genuinely nice moments of humanity strung about.  But, it becomes very clear that most of the effort in this movie went into the musical numbers.  The in between moments don’t have a visual bombast that the musical numbers do.  They are just filmed like a standard movie.  It probably derives from the fact that much of the movie is shot on location, which is a plus, but it also means that it takes on a basic feel whenever the music isn’t filling the scene.  It’s hard to know what they could have done better.  Musicals of the past benefitted from the stylized, closed environments of the movie studios, like Mary Poppins (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964), or an amazingly picturesque place like Salzburg, Austria in The Sound of Music (1965).  For In the Heights, whenever it’s not out in the streets, the movie is in the interior of someone’s rundown apartment, and it’s hard to bring visual excitement to that.  Not that it can’t be done, but when you see the effort put into the musical moments in this movie, those interior scenes really do come off as an afterthought.  It doesn’t ruin the movie as a whole, but it does seem to hold things back a bit. Overall, the movie is lively, but uneven.  At least the heavy duty work is performed by the musical numbers, and they do carry the movie.  Two numbers in particular, “96,000” and “Patience and Faith” may be some of the best musical sequences ever put to film. It’s in those musical numbers where you feel both Chu and Miranda really trying to match their cinematic predecessors and for the most part the movie does emulate the best of the movie musical. I really think that’s what most people are going to take away from this movie in the end, and they’ll be largely pleased by it.

It’s interesting how the movie chose to cast it’s characters as well. Lin-Manuel originated the role of Usnavi on Broadway, something he would later do as well when he played Alexander Hamilton at the center of his own musical, but for this movie, the part went to Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos. Clearly Ramos was someone who Miranda could trust in the role, and Ramos doesn’t disappoint. In fact he brings a little bit more to role than Lin-Manuel likely could’ve on film. Miranda is admittedly an okay singer, with his strength found more in rap. You can forgive him for being a little subpar in something since he excels in so many other fields. Ramos on the other hand not only carries every tune, he is accomplished at rapping and dancing as well. He may not spit fire with as much precision as Miranda, but he keeps up with the man’s complex beats pretty well. The movie’s ensemble is also perfectly suited in their roles as well. It even makes good use of Jimmy Smits, whose a bit of a novice to musicals. The general great chemistry with the entire cast particularly sells the idea of this community as a family, and you’ll find yourself hoping for all of them to find their happy endings. A special mention should go to Olga Merediz, whose Abuela Claudia is the musical’s beating heart. Her performance is absolutely going to knock people out in the theaters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she is shortlisted for a nomination at next year’s Oscars. Like the best Broadway musicals, it’s the strength of the ensemble that separates the great from the mediocre, and In the Heights has an excellent ensemble that does the musical justice. And those missing Lin-Manuel in the lead will be happy to know that he’s still present in the movie, playing the smaller role of Piraguero, who has his own pleasant story arc in the movie.

I also want to point out the incredible way that the neighborhood of Washington Heights becomes a character within the movie itself. Lin-Manuel, from the outset wanted to tell the story of his childhood home, and help the world discover this little slice of a New York that most people didn’t know that much about. Like I stated earlier, shooting this movie on location in the real Heights gives it this authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible on a studio lot. What is especially impressive is that the real locations are worked beautifully into the lavish musical numbers, and each helps to make the Heights feel like this special, magical place. The title number in the opening puts a chorus line of dancers in a busy intersection, “96,000” sets an epic dance routine in a community pool, and “Patience and Faith” in a subway car. You really do see an image of the world this neighborhood creates for itself that sprung from the childhood imagination of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And it does for on location shooting the same same kind of cinematic flourish that we saw in musicals like The Sound of Music and La La Land (2016). I’ve never seen the actual Washington Heights, and I’m sure that it’s probably not 100% like it is in this movie, but you can tell this is a story from someone who wants to give back to the place that reared him up, and it’s presented with a great amount of love. It pleases me that the effort to bring that to the big screen brought the filming right into the neighborhood itself, which I’m sure was a boon to the local economy. And in that respect, it does exactly what the best musicals always do, which is transport the audience into its own unique world.

The strengths of the musical, In the Heights, do outweigh the faults, but the shortcomings do bring the musical down a bit from all time heights. It is a long movie (2 1/2 hours) which is on par with most stage productions, but quite a lot for a cinematic experience. And the deflated dramatic moments do make you feel that length. At least when the musical numbers kick into gear the movie doesn’t disappoint. What I especially appreciate is the fact that director Chu was thinking about what would look best on the big screen when staging his musical numbers. Oftentimes, this is something that sinks most musical adaptations for the big screen, as the directors tend to think that you just shoot what worked on the stage. These are two different mediums entirely, and making musicals work for the big screen requires a different visual perspective. It’s something that other adaptations like The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Les Miserables forgot and took for granted, and ultimately both of those musicals failed to live up to their stage bound counterparts. In the Heights thankfully understands what it’s supposed to be, and it even does a few things different to help it stand on it’s own. As a musical experience, it is interesting to see finally the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map. It’s ambitious, but also a humble start, and something that he certainly would build upon when he moved on to his mammoth sophomore effort; the industry redefining Hamilton. I almost wish I had seen this one first last summer, so that I didn’t have Hamilton to judge it by. It’s a little unfair, considering Heights existed in a pre-Hamilton world and was never judged based on this before. Who knows, I may have been a little more forgiving of this movie. In any case, I’m happy this movie is finally out now, and it is very much well worth seeing, especially on a big screen. As Broadway and Hollywood begin to rebuild themselves in a post-COVID world together, it’s hopefully musicals like In the Heights that helps audiences remember what makes musicals so special in the world in the first place.

Rating: 8/10

Cruella – Review

There is just something about the Disney villains that has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  You look around the web and you’ll find numerous devoted fans of the famous baddies, showing their love with everything from fan art to full blown cos-playing.  And why is that?  It’s not like any of these fans are endorsing any of the bad deeds that these villains enact in their individual films.  There are a number of factors that are the reason for this.  One thing is that when it comes to portraying these characters, Disney has always gone big.  The Disney villains are larger than life, often given voice by actors relishing their time in the character’s skin, and thanks to the animated medium, they are often distinctively designed as well.  You’ll often find that when people describe who the best character was in any given Disney movie, they’ll more than often say it’s the villain.  In many cases, the villain in a Disney movie is the most well drawn and interesting of the bunch, compounded even more when there is a rather weak protagonist at the center.  And for many actors and animators that work on these movies, most will even say that they will actively campaigned for the role of bringing these baddies to life.  Overall, there is a proud legacy of Disney creating memorable villains that we all love to hate, beginning with the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and extending all the way up to recent members of the club like Dr. Facilier in The Princess and the Frog (2009).  The rogues gallery of Disney villains has become such a strong grouping of classic characters, that Disney has even begun giving them their own live action films putting them front and center in their own stories.  This was started back in 2014 when Disney reimagined the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty (1959) by putting the focus on the villainous Maleficent, and showing the story from her side in the movie bearing the same name.  Now, Disney is turning to another one of their classics, 101 Dalmatians (1961) and giving it’s legendary villain her own backstory with the new movie, Cruella (2021).

Cruella comes to us out of a long line of recent Disney remakes of their animated classics.  It makes sense that Disney would focus their attention on the thing that most people remember from the original film, being Cruella De Vil herself.  First imagined in the original 1956 children’s novel by Dodie Smith, Cruella instantly became an icon in her big screen debut in the Disney film.  Voiced with delicious glee by character actress Betty Lou Gerson (doing her best Tallulah Bankhead impression) and animated by one of Walt Disney’s celebrated Nine Old Men, Marc Davis, Cruella takes an already lovely story about the titular family of Dalmatians and makes it into an all time classic.  She also provided the template for a certain kind of Disney villain that isn’t motivated by a lust for power or pursuing a vendetta.  Her villainy is purely maniacal in nature and sadly all too real in our world; cruelty just for the sake of it.  She is motivated by nothing more than to wear a coat made from spotted Dalmatian skin, solely because she thinks it will look good on her.  Being both that demented and a larger than life figure has endeared her as one of the all time greats in the Disney canon.  In fact, long before Disney ever began their trend of remaking every one of their animated classics, they had already given 101 Dalmatians the live action treatment in a 1996 film starring Glenn Close as Cruella.  That remake itself proved to be so successful that it even spawned it’s own sequel with 102 Dalmatians (2000), with the focus increasingly on Cruella herself.  Given that these previous remakes adhered closely to the original, another remake today would’ve been a bit of overkill.  So, instead of rehashing the same story over again, Disney decided to wind the clock back more and reveal how Cruella became the villain that she is in a new origin story.  Thus, we get Cruella, which attempts to answer every question we have about Ms. De Vil, from how she got her iconic two tone hair to why she has a thing against Dalmatians in the first place.  The only question that remains is do we want those questions answered, or is it better to leave Cruella the enigmatic monster that she is?

The story begins all the way back in Cruella’s early childhood.  Young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) has a hard time behaving in school, often getting into fights and disrespecting authority.  Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) calls this bad side of her daughter Cruella, and instructs her daughter to keep Cruella hidden away so that she doesn’t get into more trouble.  When the situation gets dire for the mother and child, Catherine hopes to get help from a wealthy benefactor.  Unfortunately, the wealthy benefactor’s pet Dalmatians send Catherine falling off a cliff, and Estella now finds herself orphaned and mourning her devoted mother.  Making her way eventually to London, she meets a pair of pick pockets named Jasper and Horace.  They reluctantly take her in and teach her the tricks of their trade.  10 years later, grown up Estella (Emma Stone) is finding her life of scamming and stealing with her two companions unfulfilling.  Luckily for her, Jasper (Joel Fry) has managed to secure a job position for her in one of the most elite fashion stores in London through the kindness of his own heart, though Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) still thinks there is an angle behind it.  Though happy to start a new, straight-laced life, Estella eventually finds her dream job is not what she hoped it would be, and soon she begins to let her bad side out.  Remarkably, an act of vandalism at the store garners the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the queen of the London fashion world, and she offers Estella a job on the spot.  Again, this turns out to be too good to be true, as the Baroness is revealed to be a nightmare of a boss.  And this ultimately leads Estella to give up any pretense of civility she has left and fully embrace the Cruella inside.  Through a series of bold stunts, given publicity assistance by former classmate and friend Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Cruella soon creates a name for herself as a new fashion icon, directly challenging the Baroness’ supremacy, but as she soon learns, the Baroness is not one to take things lying down.  What ensues is a test of whether or not Estella/Cruella can withstand the Baroness’ wrath, and ultimately determine once and for all if she needs to break bad in order to defeat someone who is even worse.

Naturally there will be many comparisons between this and Disney’s Maleficent, as they are both revisionist takes on these iconic villains.  While the film Maleficent did have a decent performance from Angelina Jolie in the title role, the movie otherwise failed because it sugar-coated the things that made Maleficent such an iconic villain to begin with, and ultimately resulted in an underwhelming movie as a whole.  It was a movie that missed the point of what made the character great in the first place.  Now, I will say that as a movie, Cruella is far better than Maleficent, but it unfortunately falls into some of the same pitfalls that undermines it’s overall effectiveness.  Cruella’s main fault is that it ends up defanging what would have otherwise been an interesting descent into darkness for the character, just so it could still appeal to family audiences.  By pulling it’s punches, Disney just ends up making another product pandering to the masses, rather than exploring the authenticity of the origins of evil.  What is frustrating is that there does seem to be a really good movie in there trying to break free of it’s genre constraints.  Brought to the screen by director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) and screenwriters Tony McNamara (The Favourite) and Dana Fox (Isn’t it Romantic), the movie can be really summed up like this; hokey first act, strong engaging second act, and underwhelming final act.  The middle section of this movie, where most other films usually struggle with, is actually where the movie finds it’s voice and begins to sing.  It’s pretty much when Emma Thompson enters the picture that the movie finally begins to pick up, because it’s when the movie is able to pit our main character against an adversary, and with it, sparks begin to fly.  All the ways Cruella manages to thwart and outsmart the Baroness really are fun to watch and it actually helps you to forget that you are watching a remake of a Disney movie overall.  But, whenever the movie reminds you that you are indeed watching a movie based on an animated classic,  (with numerous Easter eggs and inside jokes) it undermines the story that is being told.  Had the movie stuck with the more interesting angle of how bad people often turn bad through a cycle of abuse by the people in their lives, it might have made the movie far more interesting than it ultimately ends up being.

That’s why a movie like Joker works where Maleficent and Cruella do not.  Joker did go all the way with their title character’s full arc into villainy.  Though the movie did portray moments where you empathize with the Joker upon seeing the hardships in his life, it still did not pull back and turn him into something of an anti-hero.  That’s why his arc was so harrowing, because we see the full destruction of a person’s humanity as we watch him become more and more villainous.  The Disney movies don’t really seem to know what they want their villains to be; hero, anti-hero, villain, misunderstood monster, who knows?  Like I stated before, had the movie gone all the way, we could see an interesting arc play out for Cruella, as she embraces more of her darker side.  Or they could’ve dispensed that entirely and showed her to be a misunderstood anti-hero.  This uneasy middle ground the movie opts ultimately makes the end result feel like a cheat.  Either go all the way bad, or don’t.  The unevenness of the movie comes really in the late second act turn.  I won’t spoil it, but there is a secret revealed at the close of the second act that unfortunately undercuts all the goodwill that led up to it, and sets up a lame, predictable climax.  Up to that point, the movie had an interesting battle of wits going, but then it suddenly turns cliché as it tries to stick a landing.  Even worse, it tries to tie things together where it begins to set up the events of the original story of the 101 Dalmatians, which seems antithetical to the story that this movie was trying to tell in the first place.  I feel like the filmmakers initially had a vision of what they wanted to do with the character of Cruella, and then through executive interference, ultimately had to compromise along the way.  As a result, Disney just ends up reinforcing how much these movies are inferior to the originals, instead of actually taking advantage of these titles and doing something bold and new with them.

Though the plot is ultimately a let down in the long run, there are some saving graces in the movie’s favor that does help to elevate it over some of Disney’s other remakes.  For one thing, I found the performances in this movie to be incredibly strong, especially for a live action Disney movie.  Emma Stone in particular commands in the title role.  I like the fact that she doesn’t simply try to impersonate the character that we all know.  This is her own spin on Cruella, and she manages to give her a surprising amount of character depth that otherwise isn’t there on the page.  Apart from getting the accent down perfect and looking good in all those lavish costumes, there is some amazing subtle work that Stone does with Cruella throughout the movie.  In particular, she gets a lot across with her eyes.  She creates this sinister glare that really defines a lot for the character, showing just how much she is relishing being bad.  She also runs the gamut of emotions pretty well too, never going fully over the top which helps to center the tone of the movie pretty well.  Had she gone full cartoonish like Glenn Close did in her turn as the character, the performance would have seriously clashed with the rest of the movie.  Close’s performance as Cruella was perfect for her more light-heated movie, and Emma Stone is perfectly attuned to what her film asks of her.  Not to be outdone, but Emma Thompson also delivers the goods as the Baroness.  She turns what could have been a one-note villain into an interesting examination of extreme narcissism run amok, and in turn makes the Baroness a villain you love to hate.  The movie really does shine with both Emma’s on screen together, and thankfully we get a whole lot of them working off each other.  I also especially like the extra character development that they give Jasper and Horace, two buffoonish goons from the original movie that actually are given much more to do here, acting as Cruella’s de facto family.  Both Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser give the characters far more depth than we’ve ever seen from these characters in prior iterations, and that’s a welcome change.

One thing that I’m sure is going to be celebrated about this movie are the lavish costumes and production design.  I’ll definitely credit the movie for capturing the feeling of it’s era, which is mid-1970’s London.  Especially with the fashion world, the movie does capture that punk rock evolution influence that defined the setting from that era, and that’s especially reflected in the movie’s costuming.  Created by Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road), the costumes are creative and memorable, including a stunning red dress that is revealed after Cruella set’s her flash paper robe alight.  While there is a lot of punk rock influence in all of Cruella’s outfits, it still does feel in character with her as a whole.  I’m actually happy that Disney didn’t try to force in the iconic fur coat from the previous movie, and instead defined this Cruella as something different (albeit still with the salt and pepper hairstyle).  Director Gillespie does also get the visual style authentic, drawing inspiration from British New Wave icons like John Schlesinger and Nicholas Roeg in his direction.  The music choices also put the movie in a definitive setting, with needle drops that include the likes of the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, the Zombies, Deep Purple, and even ELO, though sometimes the choices are a little too on the nose.  It all helps to put the movie in it’s rightful tonal setting.  An anti-authoritarian trouble maker like Cruella would flourish in this era of culture, particularly in the fashion world.  Which is why there are quite a lot of things to like about this movie in a visual sense.  Often times, I feel like the Disney remakes have run into the trouble of being over-produced; putting way too much attention into the ornate production design and not enough into the story and characters themselves.  Here, it actually works in the movie’s favor, and more importantly feels authentic.  Cruella isn’t trying to do too much eye candy, but when it does, it’s used appropriately.

Ultimately, Cruella is a frustrating movie.  It is better than the average Disney remake, but I still felt like it missed the mark as a whole.  Had the movie actually not played it safe and challenged it’s audience with a more authentic origin of it’s iconic villain, than I think the movie could have stood out more as a triumph.  Sadly, it feels like a compromise in the end, with some at Disney not willing to alienate any audiences who had any qualms about rooting for a villain.  In a frustrating way, I can see the points where this movie could have broken out and really show us something interesting.  I like what the movie initially was trying to say, that villainy comes out through experience and learning all the wrong lessons in life.  But, by the end, Cruella doesn’t learn any lessons that may have pushed her off the edge of true villainy nor does it show the breaking bad moment that culminates her journey towards the dark side.  It just neatly wraps everything up in the end, giving Cruella the reward she wants, with no real indication that she’s all good or bad in the end.  For Maleficent, the failure of that movie was that it made a hero out of someone who was more interesting as a villain in the most nonsensical way possible.  With Cruella, the movie could’ve gone either way and it would have worked for the character, instead of this ambiguous middle ground that the movie opts for.  Still, it does feature much better performances than what we’ve seen from the average Disney remake, as well as a better visual aesthetic overall.  I just wish Disney would not be so afraid to give these movies a little more bite.  The reason why Cruella has endured so much over the years is because she is a distinctive personality; hilariously over the top in the way she presents herself, but still menacingly hard edged to be viewed as a threat.  That’s why Cruella has often been used as a shorthand in our culture to describe a vain, egomaniacal person in society, usually one from a center of celebrity or power.  Disney’s Cruella has a lot of things going for it, but it ultimately can’t rise above the shortcomings that it unfortunately has inherited from other remakes.  Honestly, they should just let their villains remain rotten to the core and not have us start to see the softer side, allowing us to see what evil looks like and how people can be turned bad.  Because like the song about Cruella De Vil tells us, “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.”

Rating: 7/10

Godzilla vs. Kong – Review

As the worldwide box office begins to heal from the effects of a pandemic driven shut down, questions arise as to how movie theaters are going to return to business as normal.  What proved to be a challenge in 2020 was the fact that movie theaters had no way to operate while the pandemic was raging, which proved to be fortuitous for the growing competition of streaming services.  For a full year, most people were shut away in their homes with their only source of entertainment being what they were able to watch on their TV’s or mobile devices.  Coincidently, 2020 was also the year that many new streaming platforms launched, and were finding themselves all of a sudden responsible of carrying the burden of being the only outlet for new films from Hollywood.  Now that movie theaters across America are allowed to open, the problem that they face is trying to convince people to return back to the movies after a year of audiences growing comfortable with streaming their content instead.  There are many people eager to return (myself included, and I already have multiple times), but as of right now Hollywood is still a little unsure of the sea worthy conditions of returning to normal business.  For them, streaming almost looks like the more financially stable release model at the moment, and they are more willing to invest their future in that arena.  Movie theaters are in desperate need of proving that they can compete in this new market, and that requires the right kind of movie to bring people back to the theaters in numbers big enough to garner the studios attention.  That film in particular needs to be something that more than anything else is a crowd pleaser, and one that demands a first viewing on the big screen.  Of course, audiences have varied tastes, so what kind of movies out there are monstrously monumental enough to drive people to leave the home and come back to the movies.

From the partnership of Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers, we are getting the newest film in their Monster Universe franchise titled Godzilla vs. Kong.  The title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get, as the movie brings together two of cinema’s most famous giant monsters for a one on one battle to decide who is the king of the monsters.  Starting with 2014’s reboot of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth film in the franchise thus far, which has also included the films Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).  The characters though go back even further, and are the featured stars of some of cinemas more important and influential films.  King Kong, of course, made his debut in the 1933 film of the same name, which was a landmark in visual effects history with the stop motion used on Kong being a groundbreaking feat for it’s time.  Kong has since been updated and given a bigger screen presence in the decades since, including an epic love letter to the original directed by Oscar winner Peter Jackson in 2005.  Across the Pacific, Japan offered up their own answer to Kong’s cinematic legacy by creating the mighty Godzilla, using the giant lizard terrifying screen presence as a meditation over the very real anxieties of nuclear annihilation that the country faced post-War.  It only seemed natural that both literal screen titans would one day face of against each other, and it has happened very early on in their history as well.  Japan created an epic showdown in 1963 titled King Kong vs. Godzilla, though being a film from the 60’s, it involved two actors in suits wrestling around on a miniature set.  Now, with all of our advances in CGI animation, we can actually get a big screen duel with these cinematic icons that really feels authentic to the characters’ monstrous size and power.  Thus far, the new Monster Universe movies have given us a good taste of just how powerful these monsters are, but can the showdown between these two titans live up to the legacy that both of them have embodied for decades.

Being the fourth film in an ongoing series, Godzilla vs. Kong picks up where the previous ones left off.  In particular, it does feel like the sequel to two of the last movies, carrying over threads from both Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The movie starts with Kong being contained and monitored on Skull Island by the Monarch Corporation; the organization responsible for monitoring and containing the race of Titan beasts that inhabit the Earth.  Within his containment, Kong has managed to befriend a deaf girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottie), who is looked after by the Monarch representative on Skull Island, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).  ON the other side of the world, a facility belonging to the Apex Corporation is suddenly attacked by Godzilla.  Up to this point, it was believed that Godzilla was a protector of humanity, so this attack leads many to worry that Godzilla has turned and that he must be either neutralized or destroyed.  The CEO of Apex, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), believes he has the answer and he seeks out a theoretical scientist named Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) who believes in the Hollow Earth theory that is thought to be the place of origin for all these Titan creatures; another world within our own.  Simmons tells Lind that he can get there to find a power source capable of defeating Godzilla, but they need another Titan to lead them through the passage.  So, Kong is enlisted and brought to the closest entry point to the Hollow Earth in Antarctica, but in order to get there, he must survive being tracked down by the mighty king of Monsters.  Meanwhile, a conspiracy nut named Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) has discovered something mysterious that Apex has been hiding and he enlists the help of Godzilla expert Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her tag along school friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), a computer hacker.  As they dig deeper into the inner workings of Apex, they discover that there could be even more trouble brewing that could endanger both Godzilla and Kong, something that the already makes the contentious relationship between the monsters even more complicated.  As so much mayhem begins to unfold, we learn more clearly who stands on top as the alpha of all the mightiest monsters on Earth, and who deserves that title in the end.

Thus far, the Monsters Universe has been a mixed bag.  I stated pretty clearly in my review of the original Godzilla in this franchise that it took itself a bit too seriously.  The human characters were wooden, the tone was far too somber, and there was far too little of Godzilla in the movie as a whole.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a bit better, but still focused a bit too heavily on the human drama and not enough on Godzilla himself, who was no more than a supporting player in his own film.  I get it that you can’t just have monsters fighting monsters for an entire film; that you need something to break up the film between fights.  But the filler thus far seems to have missed the point of these movies in general.  Before, the filmmakers wanted to treat this as heavy, epic drama, as that was thought to be the answer to making the human characters feel more grounded and believable.  But, this is not Shakespeare; this is Godzilla.  Sure, the original movie from the 50’s had the very serious subtext of nuclear annihilation underneath it, but the filmmakers at Toho Studios also knew that they were making crowd pleasing entertainment.  The tone was much better achieved in Kong: Skull Island, which in a way took it’s inspiration from Vietnam war movies and followed that all the way through.  As a result, it was a perfect mix of monster mayhem and broad action film clichés, which worked together harmoniously.  I’m happy to say that Godzilla vs. Kong fits more within that tone set by Skull Island.  It’s a movie that really does feel like they mastered the formula of what these movies should be, with the monsters’ themselves at the forefront.  It doesn’t waste anytime getting the two titular titans on screen together, with a magnificent sea battle at the end of the first act.  From that first showdown, we get exactly what was promised us, and the movie does an excellent job of establishing just how monumental that battle is.

The movie was directed by established horror film director Adam Wingard, known for breakout thrillers like You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014).  Wingard is working with a far more substantial budget than he normally starts with and in a more mainstream venue.  But, his command over the tone of this movie really helps to make it all work.  First thing that he does really well here is to devote so much time to the actual monsters themselves.  The uninteresting human characters are mostly relegated to the sidelines this time and character development for them is minimal.  We are dealing with human characters this time that are archetypal rather than dimensional, and that helps move the story forward much more effectively.  A great example of this is shown with the return of the character of Madison, who was central to the plot of King of the Monsters.  In that movie, too much time was devoted to her family situation, with her mother played by Vera Farmiga taking a villainous turn and being responsible for unleashing the fearsome King Ghidorah on the world.  Here, Madison is just there to connect the two movies together, with Stanger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown returning in the role.  And as a result of not being bogged down with uninteresting human drama, she’s able to define more of a personality for the character.  Like many of the other characters in the movie, she knows her place in the story and she’s there to serve it; no more, no less.  It’s a similar tact that Guillermo Del Toro took in defining the human characters in Pacific Rim (2013); a good model to follow.  Don’t try to overthink your movie’s tone; just embrace the silliness.  And that is what makes Godzilla vs. Kong better than it’s predecessors, with the exception of the equally silly and entertaining Kong: Skull Island.  Even still, the human characters are still the weakest element of the movie, but at least this time they are not the thing that defines the movie as a whole.  The only complaint is that even though the movie is closer to getting the tone right, I just wish that the human side of the story would have embraced the weirdness even more.  The characters are better, but still boring.  At least in Skull Island, you had personalities like Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly to add some flavor just based on who they are.  Apart from a couple of actors like Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, the human characters are good, but mostly bland.  At least this time, their impact is minimal.

On the other side, the development of the monsters is far more superior than what we’ve seen before.  In particular, the movie devotes a lot of emotional investment in Kong himself.  Though the movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong, it should be stated that the film primarily revolves around Kong.  He gets the emotional arc of the story, and it is a satisfying one as well.  Wingard and the writers did a phenomenal job of drawing sympathy for the character, helping us to understand (without words) what are his wants and needs.  And the movie takes him on a journey of self discovery as well.  It’s a portrayal that is respectful to what has come before with the character, through his many cinematic iterations, and at the same time cements him as a central hero within this particular franchise.  At the same time, the movie does a good job of establishing Godzilla’s motivations as well.  This isn’t a battle of titans like in Batman v Superman that makes little sense and exists only pit two popular characters on screen at the same time for the sake of drawing an audience.  It’s more like a battle seen in Marvel’s Civil War where it’s a fight where it’s hard to root for one over the other, because both characters have clear reasons why they want to best the other.  For Godzilla, he doesn’t want to lose his place as the Alpha, knowing that Kong is his biggest challenge to that reign, and Kong has a stake in preserving not just his own livelihood, but those of the humans he has grown to care for.  That’s why when they fight, the stakes are clearly defined for both sides.  The movie does a good job of making it so that either Titan is worth rooting for, and that there is no shame in picking the wrong champion.  Given the history of these two characters, it’s satisfying to see that there is reverence for their presence on screen, and that makes their showdown feel all the more monumental.  And even though it is primarily Kong’s movie as a whole, Godzilla is never missed and is used to great effect as a presence within this story.

Visually, the movie is also a welcome improvement over it’s predecessor.  One of the things that I disliked about Godzilla: King of the Monsters was that it had too many scenes cast in darkness, making it hard to see the battles on screen.  The first showdown in that movie between Godzilla and Ghidorah particularly was hard to watch because it took place in a blizzard, which blurred the field of vision even more.  The first Godzilla had more visibility, and that helped with that movie’s giant set pieces, but that film’s problem was that there were too little of those scenes in general.  Here, the battle scenes are well shot, lit, and easy to follow.  Adam Wingard particularly uses a lot of interesting angles and colors to add some visual splendor to his battle scenes.  A showdown in downtown Hong Kong in particular is cast with the neon glow of the nearby buildings, and that makes the battle far more interesting to watch than it otherwise normally would’ve been.  The movie also embraces a far more fantastical portrayal of the world itself.  The Hollow Earth subterranean world that Kong must find his origins within is a remarkably realized environment that definitely feels like something that we’ve never seen before.  It’s also a reason why this movie certainly demands a big screen presentation.  With homages to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1978), this movie is a feast for the eyes and ears, and it just wouldn’t feel right experiencing the movie for the first time on a TV set.  Though the option is out there thanks to a dual premiere on HBO Max, this is the kind of movie that definitely reminds it’s audience why movie theaters exist.  Some movies are just too big to contain on a small screen, and the bigger truly is the better option.  I honestly think that reactions to this movie may vary widely due to how people choose to watch it, at home or at the theater, and my thinking is that the latter will likely be more positive towards the movie overall.  It’s certainly how I felt watching this film and I get the feeling that many of the people in my same screening felt the same.  It will be interesting to see if that’s the case, because it will tell us a lot about where the future of movie theaters will stand over time.

With the pandemic hopefully in the rear view mirror, movie theaters needs films desperately that can only be fully appreciated in a theater setting.  I do think that Godzilla vs. Kong is that kind of crowd pleasing movie that demands a theatrical experience to fully enjoy, but it’s hard to say if it will be the movie that gives theaters the immediate boost that it needs.  Right now, theaters are still at limited capacity, so the ability to jam theaters full of people is still not possible.  But there was something that did please me greatly when I saw the film.  During the big battle scenes, when either Kong or Godzilla demonstrated an amazing move on one another, I heard something in the theater that I never thought I would miss so much over this last year; cheering.  People were delighted by what they were watching in the theater, and to hear even a smaller crowd give out an audible cheer during this screening was a very positive sign.  People want to be able to have that experience again; to be able to cheer with delight in response to what they are watching on the big screen.  It’s the communal experience of enjoying a movie together with strangers that I think many people miss a lot since this pandemic began, and hearing just a little bit of that shared audience excitement just made me so grateful to be there and feeling that again.  We have a long way to go still, but I feel that the desire to come back to the movies is out there still, and I’m so glad that Godzilla vs. Kong helped remind us of what the cinema experience was like before it went away.  Though everyone should do what makes them feel safe, I do strongly recommend watching Godzilla vs. Kong in a theater.  HBO Max does give you a safe at home option as well if you need it, but to truly get the full experience, it has to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated.  As this movie has shown, when these two screen icons fight, we all win, and hopefully it is the monster hit that helps to save the theatrical experience as a whole.

Rating: 8/10

Raya and the Last Dragon – Review

If there was one thing that the pandemic year of 2020 has shown us about the craft of filmmaking, it’s the resilience that the industry somehow has managed to find within itself to keep things moving.  While distribution has been forever changed, shifting from theatrical to streaming over the course of the year, it has not deterred filmmakers and crew from continuing to do their jobs even while the pandemic was still raging on.  During the early days, the pandemic did grind everything to a sudden halt, and production was shut down for months.  But, adapting to the difficulties of the times, the film industry found a way to not only restart up quickly, but they managed to do so in a way that managed to keep everyone safe while on set, strictly following all the protocols needed to stop the spread of infection.  And it’s a good thing too, as keeping production on ice for the full length of this pandemic would have been devastating for Hollywood.  There needs to be a constant flow of production and output to keep this town alive, and putting everything on hold not only put thousands of people out of work, it creates a backlog jam as  more and more projects are delayed.  While on set production has it’s own demands that needed time to be put in place, the one part of the film industry that managed to continue full steam ahead without delay was animation.  Considering that an animated movie is primarily constructed with the aid of computers, it was a sensible move that many animation studios shifted to remote work, having animators and other staff complete their work from the comfort of their own home.  And because of that, animation has managed to not only survive in this pandemic effected economy, but even thrive.

One of the clearest signs of this has been the surprising box office success of Dreamworks Animations The Croods: A New Age (2020).  Though it’s may not be reflected in the total box office numbers (which are low compared to animated films from Dreamworks in years past), but The Croods sequel’s resilience in the pandemic stricken box office ever since it’s Thanksgiving weekend release has gotten some notice.  It has remained a Top 5 fixture at the box office ever since it’s release, including several weekends at the top, and even outperformed the heavily hyped Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).  And a large part of why this has been the case is because the market still remains strong for family entertainment, which bodes well for the theatrical industry.  It’s an encouraging sign that a movie like The Croods can still pull in a $50 million plus gross even with the biggest markets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco still on lockdown.  Dreamworks was able to benefit from the shortened theatrical window deal that AMC and Universal put together, so you can expect that the digital rentals for The Croods helped to make that movie a further financial hit.  But the fact that even with the streaming option Croods still performed well at the box office has to be a positive signal that a recovery for theatrical exhibition is likely to happen once the pandemic is over.  Because of this promising development, it has given animation studios the confidence to continue to move full steam ahead, even though the pandemic is still not yet over.  The studios are cautious, depending on multiple platforms for release in order to give people safe options, but they are no longer holding back in a wait and see game anymore.  And that is a positive sign as the king of all animation studios, Disney, has now delivered their newest animated epic to both theaters and streaming; Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).

Raya and the Last Dragon is a definite departure from the fairy tale trappings of past animated films from Disney.  Here, the story centers in a mystical realm that’s based heavily on Southeast Asian cultures.  There is a kingdom called Kumundra that encircles a mighty river that is shaped like a dragon, and each part of this kingdom is named after a different part of a dragon’s body: Tail, Talon, Spine, Heart and Fang.  500 years ago in the past, a sentient plague known as Druun began to spread across the land, turning every living being into stone.  The kingdom however was saved thanks to dragon magic that reversed the Druun’s curse and restored life to all the humans, but left the dragons still cursed in stone.  Many years later, the leader of the Heart Kingdom, Lord Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) seeks to restore unity between the warring nations of Kumundra.  However, the different nations want the power of the last dragon stone, which is housed in the Heart Kingdoms’ fortress, for themselves.  A fight ends up leaving the dragon stone shattered, which causes the Druun to reemerge.  Lord Benja succumbs to the curse after sacrificing his life to save his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran).  Six years later, a grown Raya seeks to reverse the Druun’s presence in the land by finding the last living dragon.  Searching all the way to the end of the Dragon’s Tail, she finds the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), who can’t make the Druun go away herself, but does in fact have have the ability to restore the stone.  So, Raya and Sisu embark on a mission to find the other shards of broken Dragon stone, and they are helped along the way by different members of the Kumundra tribes; a young fishing boat captain in the Tail region named Boun (Izaac Wang) a baby Talon girl named Noi (Thalia Tran) who survives as a con artist, and the sole surviving member of the Spine tribe, Tong (Benedict Wong).  Meanwhile, the daughter of the Fang chieftain, Namaari (Gemma Chan), a past rival of Raya’s, is also hunting for the dragon stone shards, and is ready to take Raya down in order to posses them.  It soon becomes a race to see if they can outrun the curse of the Druun while also learning to trust one another in order to survive together.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon’s will no doubt be a fascinating one in Disney’s history.  Unlike internal struggles that plagued the productions of movies like The Black Cauldron (1985) or The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Raya had to face the uphill battle against an external source of production woes, namely Covid-19.  Originally set for a November 2020 premiere, Raya was delayed like everything else, but not too far back.  It is kind of remarkable that they managed to put a film this complex together through a remote network, because there’s nothing about the look and feel of this movie that would indicate that there were any production woes at all.  Raya and the Last Dragon is an extraordinary polished final product that stands up to the high standards of Disney Animation.  Many years from now, you would find it hard to believe that this movie was made outside of the high tech confines of Disney’s Burbank studio and in the home offices of it’s technicians.  The Disney Animation team went above and beyond what anyone would expect and crafted what may be in fact one of their most visually stunning movies ever.  Given that they had a couple of extra months to work with probably helped, but even still, the necessities of working remotely still made it a challenge for the filmmakers.  Directed by Disney vet Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and animation newcomer Carlos Lopez Estrada, the movie has ambition in it’s world building that really sets it apart from other Disney animated features.  Though fantasy elements like dragons and magic are nothing new to them, the complexity of a richly detailed culture that is unique to this story is really an impressive thing that the movie manages to accomplish, and do so without leaving the audience overwhelmed.  Though the Southeast Asian influence is unmistakable, the fact that they don’t tie it to any specific source, and instead use it as an influence to inform this completely fictionalized world is something incredibly fascinating to watch explored within this movie.

The world of Kumandra is without a doubt the star attraction of this movie.  The Disney Animation team did a marvelous job of crafting a world that is both familiar and wholly original.  There are so many great ideas for portraying the different cultures of the kingdom of Kumandra that make every new scene of exploration in this world fascinating to watch.  Each kingdom lives in it’s own biome, which helps to define the character of that place.  The Tail kingdom is a dry desert wasteland, marking an ends of the earth kind of feel.  Talon is a cosmopolitan waterfront community that is reminiscent of river markets found in places like Bangkok, Singapore and other major ports of Southeast Asia.  Spine is a rugged outpost in snowy mountain forests, with people equally as rugged.  But the most impressive visuals are saved for the prosperous Heart and Fang kingdoms.  The Heart of Kumandra sits literally at the peak of a massive, donut shaped mountain that is without a doubt the movie’s most striking image.  Southeast Asia, particularly on the South China Sea coastlines, have these striking rocky monoliths all over the place, but Raya goes the extra mile into the surreal by putting a massive hole in the center of one and placing a palace on top like a crown.  Not to be outdone, the Fang kingdom’s palace is another striking creation, sitting on a massive, rice field terraced mountain top with walls and towers of rigid geometry, similar to the temples and pagodas found in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.  What the movie does really well is make this land feel authentic and lived in, without wasting too much time on world building.  It doesn’t dwell long in the details, and instead just lets the audience become immersed in the sights, sounds, and even smells of Kumandra.  Of all the things that the movie does, this kind of immersive escape into another world is it’s most impressive act.

The movie also features a strong cast to inhabit the film’s world as well.  Much like what they did with Moana (2016) a couple years back, their casting choices for the voices of these characters is informed more by a regional connection to this world, and less tied down to any specific nationality.  The voices in this movie literally come from all over the world, but they all have ancestry that connects them to the southeast Asian cultures that inspired the world of Kumandra.  Among the principle cast, the film manages to gain great chemistry from it’s stars Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina as Raya and Sisu.  Tran, who is making the jump over here from her time in the Star Wars universe, was surprising not the original voice for the main character.  Originally, Canadian actress Cassie Steele was set to play the part, but was replaced sometime last year with Tran.  No reason has been given why, but Kelly Marie Tran does a fine job of picking up the role and making it hers.  I especially love the energy she gives in her performance, making Raya pop on screen in a way she might not have otherwise.  The voices of Raya’s other companions are also very endearing as well.  A particular favorite of mine is Benedict Wong’s performance as Tong.  Some of his line readings spoken through his tough guy delivery had me giggling quite a bit.  Gemma Chan also brings a nice bit of complexity to her role as Namaari, helping her to become more than just a stock antagonist.  I also want to spotlight the incredible efforts of the character animators, particularly the ones who animated the dragon Sisu.  It’s got to be a challenge whenever an animator has to bring life to a vocal performance from a comedian like Awkwafina.  Comedians perform in a way that is different from other actors and to translate that into an animated character that looks nothing like the performer themselves can’t be easy.  Disney’s been in this place before when trying to match the zaniness of Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy.  Thankfully, not only do the animators manage to match the comedic tone of Awkwafina’s performance, but they managed to make Sisu an amazingly dynamic presence on screen.  It’s another remarkable marriage of vocal performance and animation that stands up strong with the comedic legends that have preceded Awkwafina’s Sisu in the Disney Canon.

With stellar visual and animation, and a lively vocal cast, this movie has all the makings of an all time classic for the studio.  And while it definitely is above average, I also have to say that it does fall a bit short of legendary status as well.  Raya is top tier when it comes to visuals, and it features a surprisingly rich story line as well.  But, what the movie could have used is another polish of the screenplay itself.  The script was written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, the latter just coming off the success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018).  While the duo do deserve credit for holding together the complexity of this kind of world-building and offer some interesting character development as well, some of the dialogue in the movie is a bit trite and uninspired.  In particular, the movie doesn’t have the comedic oomph that other Disney classics have illustrated in the past.  There’s one bit in particular about shopping with credit that feels very much out of place and shoehorned into this movie and it took me out of the experience for a bit.  Some jokes do land, but they are few and far between, and I feel that a another punch up (possibly with a more comedy minded writer) could have saved some of the pitfalls of this movie.  That being said, the actors do their best to make what is on the page as good as it can be.  Tran and Awkwafina’s chemistry goes a long way towards making their scenes together work.  I also think that one unfortunate thing about the movie is that it leaves out more time to delve deeper into these characters’ stories as well, and in particular, Raya herself.  Raya changes very little through the course of the movie and when I thought it would come to a point where she ultimately learns an important lesson, it never happens.  She’s sadly one of the less interesting heroines I’ve seen in recent Disney movies; not bad overall, but far less engaging than say Moana or Elsa as a central character.  These shortcomings hold back what otherwise could have been one of Disney’s most impressive films ever, and while no where near a failure, it nevertheless feels a bit disappointing overall.

Even still, Raya and the Last Dragon is still a movie well worth seeing.  If it’s safe and accessible, this movie is preferably worth going out to the movie theaters to watch.  This is a big, epic widescreen kind of movie that really needs the theatrical experience to really do it justice.  Thankfully, this movie is getting a theatrical run, but it’s limited in scope given that the pandemic is still ongoing, despite encouraging steps in the right direction.  Theaters are still closed here in LA, so I ventured way out of town to visit the Mission Tiki Drive-In once again, but it was worth the drive because I got to see it the way it was intended; on a giant screen.  Disney also has made the movie accessible through streaming on Disney+, with the Premiere Access pay-for-view feature that they used last year for Mulan (2020).  However, unlike Mulan, Raya gives you a theatrical option, so if you accept the risk, I strongly recommend watching it in a theater because one, it’s looks better than on a TV and two, it’s a better value.  I do think that some of the shortcomings of the screenplay do hold it back, but it’s made up for with a richly detailed world and some of the best animation that has ever come from Disney, and that’s saying a lot.  It’s also nice that it’s a new movie from them that is something new and original, and not a sequel.  It’s also a vast improvement over the lackluster Frozen II (2019).  It’s not anywhere near the top of Disney’s animation output, but it’s a worthy inclusion into the ranks of the esteemed Disney canon.  I can see Raya becoming a beloved classic for many and it will deserve that honor in many ways.  I will especially love to see how well the Southeast Asian community embraces the film, and it will be wonderful to see children from those communities respond to watching their culture be reflected finally in a Disney film.  That’s one of the great things about Disney’s drive to portray so many different cultures in their films; it gives a voice and identity to cultures that otherwise go unheralded in animation, and it also educates those of us outside of the culture to the wonderous art, food and people that make up those communities.  It’s kind of interesting that the plot of this movie centers around a society broken apart by the ravages of a plague, and it’s all about bridging all of our differences in order to fight against a common threat that affects us all equally.  It’s ultimately a movie about a society finding a way to heal itself, and for being one of the biggest new movies in what will be a post-pandemic world, Raya and the Last Dragon’s arrival right now couldn’t be any more pivotal to our times as they are right now.

Rating: 8/10

Nomadland – Review

The pandemic of 2020 left a major impact on the film industry as a whole, but one of the least consequential effects is it’s impact on Hollywood’s desire to still honor the films of the past year.  Awards season, despite being mostly done remotely, has been going off without a hitch.  The one big difference of course is the much more sparse slate of choices from the last year, as most of the major studios pushed back their biggest contenders to later this year, with the hope that cinemas can return to normal business soon.  The Oscars and the Golden Globes did grant an extended period of eligibility for movies this year, with the cutoff date being the end of this month, which means that the public is just now getting the most likely contenders for the big prize nearly two months into the new year.  It’s a concession that we are unlikely to see happen again, as it’s likely that Oscar Season will tighten up again next winter, but it is interesting to see how the Academy adjusted it’s rules so quickly to adapt to these extraordinary times.  Strangely enough, last year’s Oscars happened just before the pandemic moved into full swing, and was one of the last mass gathering events to happen before the lockdowns began.  Though the Academy made the moves in the hopes that they could continue to hold a traditional in-person ceremony, that seems very unlikely as the pandemic is still raging in some parts of the country, including Hollywood itself, and holding a big mass gathering ceremony at this time would be irresponsible.  But, what we are still likely to see at this year’s Oscars is a lot of historic firsts thanks to the lack of competition from the major studios opening the door for independent movies coming from a diverse set of new and exciting voices.

One of the neatest things to have come out of the Awards circuit of 2020 so far has been the dominance of movies coming from groups otherwise overlooked by the Academy.  People of color are likely to see representation among the nominees at this year’s Oscars more than any year past, and that will be quite a gamechanger for Hollywood.  One of the historical milestones that we might see occur this year is the first time every acting category will have at least one POC in the running in the same year, with even an outside chance of sweeping as well.  And that kind of diversity even extends in other categories as well.  We may see a record number of women nominated for directing this year.  Keep in mind, there has never been a year where there has been more than one woman director nominated at a time, and in the 93 year history of the awards, only one woman has won the Directing Oscar; Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), and that was well over a decade ago.  It’s too bad that history at the Oscars seems to only be possible if Hollywood stays out of the way, but even still, the Awards are long overdue in giving out these kinds of honors.  And the reason I spotlight this is because emerging out of the Awards season so far has been the unlikeliest of front-runners.  Chinese born filmmaker Chloe Zhao has thus far become the most honored Director of the year with her new film Nomadland.  If she were to carry her momentum all the way to Oscar night, her win could really mark a turning point for a lot of other rising filmmakers from other underrepresented backgrounds.  The question is, now that Nomadland is finally making it’s debut to the public audience, is it a movie worthy of all the hype it had received thus far.

The movie Nomadland takes place in the aftermath of the Great Recession, where many small communities faced the harsh reality of economic hardship when the industries that once kept them afloat suddenly went bankrupt.  That is the situation that a middle aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) has found herself in.  The town that she lived in suddenly became unincorporated by the state of Nevada after the closure of the Gypsum mine dried up all the jobs that kept the community afloat, and this came after Fern lost her husband to a long battle with Cancer.  Instead of moving back in with family or finding a new home somewhere else, Fern instead converts an old delivery van into a mini-mobile home, taking all her worldly possessions with her on the road.  She soon joins a community of modern day nomads, all of whom help each other adjust to living on the road, finding odd jobs along the way, and exchanging goods through swap meets.  Fern develops a friendships along the way, but a part of her always keeps people at an arms length, preferring solitude over long term attachments.  This aspect of her personality is challenged once she meets another fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn), who has been flirting around with her for some time.  She does develop a special bond with Dave, especially when they work for a time in the same kitchen of a restaurant.  But, once Dave is called back to be with his family during an important time, it forces Fern and Dave’s budding relationship to be tested.  In this experience, Fern confronts what kind of life she believes she is destined to live, and how she can square that with the necessities of life constantly being a daily challenge.  Through it all, she tests her resiliency for independence, despite the promising invites to settle down and live quietly once again.  Thus is the life of a nomad, and Fern discovers through heartache and triumph if it’s the true life for her.

For Nomadland to emerge as an Awards season frontrunner is kind of a strange thing to witness.  The movie is a very quiet, low key tone poem of an experience that doesn’t exactly scream out for recognition.  It’s quite a change from your typical Oscar bait movie, which usually wants to notice how important it is.  Nomadland is, by contrast, a very unassuming movie.  It’s the kind of film that you would stumble across in an art cinema or late night or scroll past on a streaming platform without much thought, and yet still find it an absorbing experience.  That’s why it’s so weird that it is not only doing well in the run up to the Oscars, it’s dominating.  The movie took home two major honors already that are bell weathers of the Oscars, which are the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award from the Toronto Film Festival.  Considering other Oscar juggernauts like Green Book (2018), Roma (2018), and Parasite (2019) have rode the festival honors to eventual big wins, it stands to reason that Nomadland is going in this year as the film to beat.  So, it becomes a little unfortunate that I was ultimately underwhelmed by the movie itself.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad by any means, but it just didn’t grab a hold of me in the same way that other movies up for the major awards have in the past.  In a way I feel like the hype behind the movie did it a disservice and raised the bar too high to live up to.  I came into this movie expecting to be blown away by a modern masterpiece, and instead I found it to be a charming if a bit too languid of a movie to go on raving about.  Perhaps it’s just a first impression thing, and I may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate the movie as a whole.  But, going off of my first impressions, I’d say temper your expectations, because a game-changer that will shape cinema for years to come this ain’t.

Some of the response to the movie may be determined by the overall feelings one gets from the story itself.  Based on a novel from Jessica Bruder, and adapted for the screen by Chloe Zhao herself, The movie is overall a very intimate portrait of these people and the life that they lead.  One of the most interesting aspects of film is that it does break down exactly what modern nomad life is actually like, and it doesn’t pass judgment on these people either.  It removes the stigma of these people being transients or homeless.  The nomads in this movie have chosen this life purposely, and are content living on the road.  They work, earn money when they can, support each other, give back whenever someone has handed something out to them.  As Fern states within the movie, she isn’t homeless, she’s house-less, and there is a big difference.  And I liked the scenes where it breaks down how this community functions, as there is a support system in place for all these people as they communicate with each other even when they are miles apart.  Zhao does an excellent job of just letting the moments play out casually on screen; like we have just ease dropped into the lives of these characters.  I especially like how so much detail is put into the living spaces of these make-shift mobile homes, as they reveal so much of the personalities of these people.  Where I feel the movie falls short is that while the subject of the movie is fascinating, it’s also very surface level.  There is no greater purpose to the story; no theme that drives the narrative.  One missed opportunity that I feel the movie glossed over is the way that many of these people have been driven to this kind of lifestyle through an unfair economic structure.  There’s just the slightest hint of it in the way that job opportunities left to people like Fern, who has been displaced by the failure of outdated industries of the past, are now limited to places that devalue the individuality of the worker like an Amazon fulfillment center where Fern works over the holidays.  It’s a theme of displaced people trying to live outside of a society that has left us behind that I feel could have been explored better in the movie, and sadly is uncommented upon for the rest of the film.

What does hold the movie together though is Frances McDormand’s performance.  It is remarkable how well she does disappear into a role movie after movie, and Nomadland is no exception.  This is also one of her more subtle performances too, especially compared to her more showy performances that have won her two Academy Awards already; for Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).  She manages to make Fern a believable everywoman who like all those around her is just trying to live day by day with no greater purpose other than to maintain her independence.  In the hands of a different filmmaker and a different actress, Fern may have been portrayed with a lot less subtlety, to the point where she may have been injected with some kind of mental problems that would have been exploitative for Oscar bait.  Instead, Fern is portrayed as a normal, every day person who has just chosen this way of life as her ideal situation, and that there is no shame in that.  There is an excellent scene where Fern defends her lifestyle to her more grounded, home-owning family who are concerned about her well being, and the movie expertly avoids turning it into an explosive moment that could have made the movie feel false and sermonizing.  Instead, it is a natural back and forth disagreement that defines who Fern is, but also doesn’t portray her family as ignorant either.  It’s honest and that is refreshing to see in a movie like this.  One other incredible aspect of the movie is that Frances is for the most part acting opposite people who are not trained actors, and are in fact real life nomads themselves.   Veteran actor David Strathairn is the obvious exception, and he is quite good too, but all of the non-actors do come across as genuine in front of the camera, and it really shows the incredible skill Chloe Zhao has in bringing out that naturalistic feel in her characters, no matter what level of acting experience they have.  Even with the movie’s lack of larger themes, it does pull you in with the genuineness of the lives it’s bringing to you through the lens of the camera.

And speaking of the camera itself, another area where the movie really soars is the fantastic cinematography on display.  Shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also worked with Zhao on her previous film The Rider (2017), does a magnificent job of capturing the wide open spaces of the American west.  For a movie that’s all about untethering oneself in order to see the country one road at a time, it does a masterful job of putting you on that road with these modern day nomads.  From the in the middle of nowhere campgrounds to the intimacy of small town life, it’s a wonderful kaleidoscope of the rarely seen parts of America; the areas that can still be called a frontier.  And quite expertly, Zhao also refrains from any sort of social commentary here, which Hollywood often will do with what is known as flyover country.  Zhao’s eye is directed to showing the little lives of these people living in this larger than life world.  There are some incredible shot of mountain ranges and coastlines throughout the movie, as well as a very character driven encounter in the Badlands National Park of South Dakota.  One of the most beautiful shots however comes close to the end, when Fern does return to the home that she left behind.  There you see this vast desert valley stretch out to the mountains in the distance, and the mountain peaks are shrouded by the cloud cover of an overcast sky.  It contrasts so perfectly with the emptiness of her old home, as we see the floor, wall, and ceiling of nature itself welcoming her into her new home.  If there was ever a movie this year that demands a big screen presentation, it is this one.  Thankfully, I got to watch this in a Drive-In, which is appropriate in itself as it’s a theater experience out in the open skies and in the moonlight.  And more importantly, it was on a big screen that really sold the majesty of the big wide open spaces that were so important to the character of Fern at the center of the film.

So, even with my misgivings about the tone and narrative of the story, I can understand why so many people are singing the praises of Nomadland.  It is an expertly crafted and beautifully acted movie that will no doubt transport many people that fall under it’s spell.  It just didn’t grab me as hard as I would’ve liked.  Perhaps if I didn’t go into this movie with the knowledge of it’s frontrunner status of this awards season, I may have been less judgmental of it’s shortcomings.  As of now, I expect it to a least do pretty well at this year’s Oscars, if not outright win the entire thing, but it probably won’t be my own personal pick.  At the same time, if it does win, I won’t be too upset either.  I felt the same way about last year’s winner Parasite; not what I would’ve chosen, but I was happy to see it win (no Green Book inspired outrage here).  Of course I’m saying this even before the nominations have even been announced, so it’s still up in the air.  At the end of the day, I’d say that Nomadland is a fine cinematic experience worth checking out.  It’s a fascinating look into a world that I wasn’t aware of before, and it is constructed with love by a filmmaker who is really starting to emerge as an impressive new voice in Hollywood.  Remarkably her very next film will be the mega-budget blockbuster The Eternals (2021) for Marvel Studios, a wild departure from what she has made in the past.  Hopefully, she doesn’t compromise her unique voice too much to work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and hopefully she actually molds the Marvel formula more to her tastes, thereby adding a whole different kind of vision into that world.  If she ends up becoming the second ever female director to take home an Academy Award for her work, it will definitely add some clout to her name in Hollywood, and could allow her to make even more ambitious projects down the line.  With Oscar and Marvel on her resume, we may be seeing the emergence of one the true leaders of Hollywood for the next generation, and that’s something that’s been long overdue for a woman director.  Nomadland is a casual, visually stunning and charmingly performed film that while not groundbreaking is nevertheless an expertly crafted passion project for a filmmaker that is likely going to be going on to some very big things in the future.

Rating: 8/10

Wonder Woman 1984 – Review

I get the feeling that we’re going to be giving movies that came out in the year of 2020 a special distinction in the years to come.  Given the upheaval that happened in the industry this year due to the pandemic, the fact that any movie got released this year (especially those on the big screen) is kind of miraculous in itself.  We saw an unprecedented number of movies move off of their release dates this year due to the sudden closure of movie theaters across the country, and for the big multi-million dollar franchise films, it became increasingly difficult to find a safe place to land.  Given the current landscape of the theatrical industry, we are unlikely to have a blockbuster sized hit on the same level that we saw over the last decade.  The lackluster box office performance of Tenet (2020) proved that back in September.  And given that studios have been spending so much on the budgets for these movies, expecting billions in box office returns to justify their investment, it’s leading to a reckoning within the industry that I think many of them were not expecting to confront so soon.  We saw some of that play out this past few weeks with Warner Brothers controversial choice to release their entire 2021 slate of movies on streaming at the same time as theaters.  This angered many within both the production and theatrical side of the business, seeing it as a clear threat to the long term future of the big screen experience.  No doubt, the ramifications of the move are going to effect the way that Hollywood does business for the next decade, with streaming taking on a heavier role in distribution, and if the end of the year is any indication, we may see the first real sign of what the future will look like.  This weekend, two of the major studios have used this Christmas weekend to try out the different modes of streaming distribution that have come about because of the pandemic.  One is Disney releasing their brand new and highly anticipated Pixar film, Soul (2020), on Disney+ with no extra surcharge to subscribers, while the other is DC’s new super hero blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), releasing in a hybrid premiere in theaters and on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming platform.

Wonder Woman 1984 was perhaps one of the most difficult movies to find a new home for in this pandemic year.  Originally slated for a June release, the movie moved twice into October and then finally to it’s Christmas Day premiere.  Many were even speculating if it could even meet that mark, given the fact that the pandemic is reaching an all time high during the Holidays.  In the end, Warner Brothers still made Christmas the final landing spot for their eagerly awaited sequel, which was probably very much needed, as their 2021 calendar was already crowded and pushing Wonder Woman back any further would have complicated things even more.  The unfortunate reality of the pandemic lasting far longer than anyone hoped is that even putting the movie out on the usually reliable Christmas season didn’t guarantee box office big enough to offset the cost of the movie’s production.  So, the decision was made to give the film the hybrid release on both streaming and in theaters, with parent company AT&T hoping that the increase in subscribers on HBO Max could help make up for the expected lower theatrical returns.  Director Patty Jenkins, returning from her celebrated helming of the original Wonder Woman (2017), had long held out that she preferred a theatrical run for her movie, but given that such a move is impossible on a large scale right now, she reluctantly approved the hybrid release for the movie in the end.  However, she did so as a promise from Warner Brothers that it was a temporary measure given the climate of the market at the moment.  She didn’t know that Warner Brothers would take Wonder Woman 1984’s release model and apply it to all future film premieres moving forward.  Naturally, this did not sit well with Patty and she added her voice to all the other aggrieved filmmakers affected by Warner’s rash decision.  Regardless, depending on what’s available to customers across the country, we now are able to watch Wonder Woman 1984.  The question remains, does it retain the wonder of the original or did it lose it’s spark too quickly.

Taking place in between the World War I setting of the original Wonder Woman, and the events in which we see her take part in the Justice League (2017), Wonder Woman 1984 finds Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) aka Wonder Woman, living comfortably at home in the mortal world after leaving her Amazonian homeland behind.  She works at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. as a curator of antiquities, but in her spare time, she discreetly helps save citizens as the friendly neighborhood super hero.  One day, a mysterious artifact ends up in her office from Latin America, which immediately garners interest from Diana and her newest colleague, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig).  The two soon find out that the stone, when held in their hand, has the power to grant wishes.  Barbara ends us using the wishing stone to make her more like Diana, both in beauty and in power.  Diana on the other hand sees her wish granted without every knowing how she made it in the first place.  She wished to see the boyfriend she lost in World War I, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) once again, and suddenly she bumps into a stranger who miraculously has all of Steve Trevor’s memories.  Though he is living in another man’s body, Steve appears to Diana as the man she remembered, and she realizes he dream wish has come true.  But, over time she learns that every wish granted has a price, and the more wishes made, the higher the cost.  That’s the dilemma that soon rises once a wannabe oil tycoon named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) takes possession of the stone.  Soon he gains the power to grant wishes to millions of people across the world, which only makes him more powerful, and a serious threat to the stability of civilization.  Once Wonder Woman discovers the truth behind the stone’s magic, and the true cost of having wishes granted to everyone, she has to make the difficult choice of either keeping Steve Trevor in her life again, or sacrificing her happiness in order to save the world.  All the while, she has to contend with an even more dire threat as Barbara Minerva grows more powerful, ultimately becoming a foe by the name Cheetah, that stands between Diana and stopping Maxwell Lord.

When Patty Jenkins undertook the role of director for the big screen debut of Wonder Woman, it was marked with a lot of obstacles in her path.  Never before had a major studio given a project of this size to a female director before, let alone a Super Hero movie.  At the same time, Warner Brothers and DC were being widely criticized for making Super Hero films that were too dark and depressing, and were generally considered to be out of character for the comic book nature of their source material.  But thankfully, Patty Jenkins, who up until that point had only had one other theatrical film on her resume (2003’s Monster), not only excelled at delivering a big hit with Wonder Woman, she also broke new ground for female filmmakers everywhere.  She proved that yes, a woman can direct an action adventure, super hero movie just as well as a man, and her incredible work even made a sea change in tone and character for all the DC movies that followed.  The same exceeded expectations were also reflected in the performance of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Once an unknown actor/model in Hollywood, Gal took the opportunity given to her with the part and has become a full blown movie star as a result.  To many people, especially among younger fans, she has embodied the character of Wonder Woman completely and in many ways, she has put to shame many naysayers who thought casting her initially was a mistake.  Because the original Wonder Woman was such groundbreaking hit, a lot of pressure was put on both Jenkins and Gadot to do it all again.  There were two ways that they could have chosen to have gone; either delve into darker territory, reminiscent of the more dramatic moments of the first movie, or go more towards the sillier side of the character that is reminiscent of her comic book origins.  In my opinion, I’m quite glad that they chose the latter.  One of my worries for a sequel to Wonder Woman was that it would just repeat what we already saw before.  The first film was not without it’s lite moments, but it generally took a very serious approach to the character, putting her in a war time setting.  Wonder Woman 1984 thankfully is a departure that embraces a far more different tone that helps to set it apart.  And in that respect, I think it makes this the best possible sequel that we could have asked for.

I think for many, the change in tone might be off-putting to those used to the seriousness of the first Wonder Woman.  But I really don’t think that tone would have carried over from one film to another.  For one thing, the time period is very different, and I think that director Patty Jenkins wanted the movie to reflect that change.  Where the original was a gritty war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or 1917 (2019), Wonder Woman 1984 is very much grounded in the quirkiness of the 1980’s cultural zeitgeist.  In particular, I believe Jenkins is channeling inspiration from 80’s rom coms that had a supernatural twist like Mannequin (1987) or Weird Science (1986).  That tone would feel out of place for any other super hero story, but not Wonder Woman.  The character has always reflected a colorful flamboyance that ran alongside the harrowing action adventure within the comic books, and I think that this is what Jenkins wanted to bring in this second outing.  And, for the most part, I found myself enjoying some of that 80’s cheese sprinkled throughout the movie, because it really is something unique that I haven’t seen embraced in many other super hero films of this type.  The differences between the movies felt very reminiscent of the differences between the first Thor (2011) and Thor; Ragnarok (2017), where the series transitioned from serious to silly, without losing the core essence of the character.  Not that WW84 removes every super hero trope either.  There are still some incredible action set pieces throughout the movie too, including an incredible chase through the desert where it seemed like Patty Jenkins was drawing even more inspiration from other iconic 80’s movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Road Warrior (1982).  I think the fact that the movie clued it’s audience in to what kind of movie it would be very early on helped me to buy into the conceit of it’s tone right away and allowed me to enjoy the ride from then on.

I think another thing that helps the movie find it’s footing is the fact that Gal Gadot remains consistent from movie to movie.  We can still buy that this is the same heroine that walked into No Man’s Land and almost took down the opposing force single handedly, but it’s also believable that she has changed over the years as well.  Her Amazonian heritage prevents her from aging like the rest of humanity, but that same power also leaves her isolated.  She can’t reveal her true power to anyone, so she can’t make any long term friends.  That’s why her dilemma feels so conflicting in the film, because we want her to finally be happy and fulfilled, but we also know that in doing so it would prevent her from being the hero she must be.  Gal Gadot embodies every aspect of the character perfectly, from the shining heroic battles to the more personable, vulnerable moments.  There is an especially pleasing early sequence in a mall where Wonder Woman takes down a group of thieves, and Gal makes Wonder Woman look like she jumped right off the comic page in a glorious way.  It also helps that she has incredible chemistry with Chris Pine, whose return here is very welcome.  Some might find the way that he makes it back into the film to be a bit of a stretch, but given how on board I was for the cheesiness of this movie, I accepted it, and he brings a lot of extra charm to the movie.  One big surprise to me was Kristen Wiig in the role of Cheetah.  When I initially heard about her casting, I was worried, because all I could think about was the many oddball characters that she has played on Saturday Night Live and several other movies.  But, to my surprise, she actually holds her own in the movie, and brings a surprising amount of depth to the character and even a little menace at times, especially towards the end.  Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is a bit of mixed bag.  There are times when his performance is especially strong, particularly when the toll of granting wishes begins to physically affect him, but there are also moments when he goes a little too overboard.  He’s clearly a representation of Reagan era hucksters that dominated the media at that time, with elements of Gordon Gecko and Donald Trump sprinkled throughout.  But, other times, I was hoping for a little more of the subtlety that I’ve seen Pedro give in other roles like in The Mandalorian.

Honestly, if I were to find a flaw in the movie that holds it back from being among the best Super Hero movies of all time, it would be the fact that it’s trying to tell too much story all at once.  In particular, it does the same mistake that a lot of other movies like Batman Forever (1995) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) have made, in that it gives us one too many villains in a single movie.  Both Maxwell Lord and Cheetah are iconic adversaries of Wonder Woman from the comic books, and both could carry a movie on their own.  The fact that they have to share time within the same story in a way robs the impact of one from the other, especially in Cheetah’s case.  Now, Wonder Woman 1984 is a way better movie than the other examples that I just gave, but it still succumbs to the same fault when it comes to building up the villainous threat for the hero to face.  I would have much better preferred to have an entire movie devoted to Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah instead of a late third act showdown that we ultimately receive.  The film is also very long too, running almost 2 1/2 hours, and unlike the first movie, a lot of the movie is padded by filler.  A lot of it is still good character building moments, like a sweet montage of Diana showing Steve all the wonders of 1980’s America, but ultimately there could have been a good twenty minutes or so of the movie that could have been trimmed and nothing would’ve felt lost.  At the same time, I do feel that the movie ultimately holds together by the time it reaches it’s end, and it leads to a surprisingly uplifting finale that remains true to the character.  The biggest problem with the first Wonder Woman is that it lead up to a convoluted final act that felt out of character with the rest of the movie, especially falling short of that now iconic No Man’s Land sequence earlier in the movie.  WW84 thankfully doesn’t fall into that same lackluster ending, and overall it remains consistent.  Like the original, it has it’s pitfalls (maybe a little more than the first) but it still maintains a thoroughly enjoyable experience throughout.

One thing that really helped me enjoy the movie a bit more than I probably would’ve otherwise is that I managed to see it on a big screen.  Four walled theaters are still closed here in Southern California where I live, but the few Drive-Ins working in the area did have the movie screening, and I gladly drove myself well outside of town to take that opportunity.  I could’ve watched it at home on HBO Max, but for a movie like this, nothing less than a big screen experience would’ve sufficed for me, and it was well worth the effort.  Wonder Woman 1984 is a big screen movie, no doubt about it, and it’s unfortunate that it’s premiere comes at a time when going out to the movies is not so easy for everyone, and even dangerous for others.  I really wish I could’ve seen this on a big IMAX screen, but the Drive In I went to, the Mission Tiki in Montclair, CA, had a big enough screen to make me feel satisfied with what I was watching.  Wonder Woman 1984 succeeds more than anything else at being a fun romp with an epic sized budget behind it, and honestly after a year like the one that we had, it was just nice to experience a quirky popcorn film like this again.  My hope is that theatrical market will come back in some fashion, and that movies like this can be able to thrive once again.  Sadly, we are looking at a future where the hybrid release model is going to be more relied upon by the studios, and it may even be here to stay depending on how well Wonder Woman 1984 does.  We’ll see how that drama plays out into next year, but in the meantime, I applaud Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot for holding true with the entertainment potential of the Wonder Woman movies.  Wonder Woman 1984 certainly is no where near the greatest movie of this genre, and it may lack the initial legacy impact of the original, but it still is great entertainment that we desperately need in a time like this.  If you are able to, with all the safety protocols in place, I recommend seeing it on a big screen, but if you choose to stream it, that’s fine too.  We need a prosperous future for fun, audience pleasing movies, and if we give Wonder Woman 1984 a successful run on both ends, things could really indeed turn out to be wonderful at the movies again.

Rating: 8.5/10