Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it's onward we go
Onward is directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon, and stars the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer.
The past few years have not been kind to my approval of Disney and their decisions when it comes to nearly anything and everything cinema. From giving sequels or prequels to timeless classics like Mary Poppins, to giving needless live-action remakes to just about every major animated film they've released in their history, Disney has gone all-in with the, "preying on nostalgia" strategy that is showing no signs of slowing down. And why should Disney change? No need to worry about creating brand new, original works that are super imaginative when The Lion King Part 2: The Sequel to the Reboot of the Long-Lost Prequel is making millions of box office dollars. So, until the inevitable live-action remakes of Bambi and Snow White hit theaters and ring in the end times, we must continue to endure Disney's repeated screams of "Give us your money!"
So, what does Disney's malevolent intents have to do with Pixar? Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, but I do not to hold the same animosity towards the two, because at least Pixar doesn't prey on our nostalgia for older classics, and they still have the decency to pump out something original every now and then. Where I'm getting at with all this is that Onward, Pixar's newest feature is something completely original, and it's a truly refreshing kind of original, which sounds a bit strange when the also original Coco came out only a few years ago. What happened was that Disney dropped us sometime ago in a desert, barren of originality, and Onward is that heavenly freshwater lake that we finally stumbled across.
So, Onward takes place in a world populated by mythical creatures, who once lived by using magic. However, technological advancements through the years eventually overtook magic, and the practice was almost entirely forgotten. In the present day, two elf brothers, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) Lightfoot live in New Mushroomton city. Ian is a high-schooler who struggles with confidence, and Barley is a free-spirited fan of history and role-playing games. The two brothers live with their mother, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus), who is dating one of the city's police officers, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). On Ian's sixteenth birthday, Laurel gives the brothers a gift from their father, Wilden, who died from illness before Ian was born. The gift is three separate items: a magic staff, a Phoenix gem, and a letter describing a "visitation spell", which, if performed correctly, will resurrect Wilden for one day. Ian attempts the spell, but only succeeds in bringing back half of Wilden's body before the Phoenix gem disintegrates. With only a 24 hour window to see their father again, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to retrieve another Phoenix gem.
One of the dangers with Pixar releasing such highly-regarded animated films over their history is that "great" eventually becomes the norm, and anything less than "great" may be seen as a disappointment. And while I would not consider Onward to be "great", at least great in the sense that we say Toy Story, The Incredibles, or Finding Nemo are great, Onward fits snugly into Pixar's "good" tier, that is, it's a film that takes place in an interesting setting and does enough with its characters, story, and humor to satisfy. Where the film largely falls short, however, is that it just skims the surface when it comes to its world-building and character dynamics, though I think the film also deserves a lot of praise because it goes in a pretty ambitious direction with its story, and it doesn't bring a tidal wave of sentimentality crashing down on you at any point.
- I have to be careful with how I proceed with discussing my main high point of this film, as I could get dangerously close to major spoilers. Here goes: on paper, Onward looks to be largely a fun, fantasy-based adventure, and if that is how the film exactly passed out, it would get by as a fun, charming, albeit safe addition to the Pixar library. What really makes Onward stand out though is that it takes its story in a direction that tackles a message that isn't at all obvious form the get-go. The message is a family matter that I don't think gets anywhere near enough attention, certainly not in other animated films. Now, plot twists are not the first thing I think of when discussing Pixar films (certainly, Pixar has pulled off quite a few plot twists over the years), but Onward's third act is a twist that is not only unexpected, but also quite effective. I honestly think the ending will hit harder for parents than it will for children, especially because of some of the discussions the film's ending could generate in the hours, even days after a first viewing. I think the messaging is also what will make Onward quite memorable going forward, not just the simple fact that, "it's original." Unfortunately, going any farther I'm afraid will start to step into major spoiler territory. One last word: the film indeed has a happy and satisfying conclusion. It just isn't the happy and satisfying conclusion you might guessed initially.
- World-building can be challenging, especially when you're granted only about a 90-95 minute run-time, excluding credits. Regardless, I did find it disappointing that Onward doesn't go deep enough with its world-building, especially since it shows strong potential by mixing high fantasy with modern-day technology. There are a lot of ideas to work with here, such as connecting what happened in the past with the present. You could do something like, "Old-time magic once taught people ways of thinking that could be just as important in the present, where everyone has phones, computers, and other forms of technology." Unfortunately, the high magic of Onward ends up being not much more than a plot device, which isn't the worst thing in the world, but it does seem like a missed opportunity. Pixar has thrived on turning goofy-sounding concepts and worlds into incredibly charming and memorable experiences, and that's not what we get with Onward.
There are several other areas in the film that feel rather shallow as well. Ian and Barley are with each other virtually the entire movie, but we never get quite a full idea of what their relationship has been like over the years. The movie does have the two argue with each other once or twice, but their arguments just end up being little more than petty squabbles and not plot-altering conversations that add to Ian and Barley's respective characterizations. Onward also doesn't show as much creativity as it could with all its characters being mythical creatures. Octavia Spencer voices a Manticore, which should be super cool, except that the script gives her a rushed and almost out-of-nowhere motivation to join the central plot. Also, if Colt Bronco wasn't a name that was thought up at the last minute for a character that is part-horse, then I don't know what is. At the very least though, the movie gives us a hilarious group of biker pixies, and you can be that this adds a ton to the film.
In the end, Onward is perfectly acceptable work from Pixar and another animated feature the whole family will enjoy. The world-building and characterization fall short, but the story and the direction it goes makes this one of Pixar's more memorable features. As always, the animation is gorgeous to look at; that's a high point that always exists, but doesn't need any real discussion. For right now at least, it looks as if Pixar is dedicating more time to purely original films, which I know we will all welcome with open arms. What remains to be seen is will these original works be timeless classics or more additions to Pixar's "good" tier? It's hard to imagine another Cars 2 disaster anytime soon, so I'd say we can go into just about any new Pixar feature with an open mind. Onward had the luxury of being so refreshingly original, and while it doesn't mean we're forever free of sequels and prequels, it does put a little bright spot on a year that desperately needs them.
Extraction is directed by Sam Hargrave and is written by Joe Russo, the former also co-producing with his brother Anthony Russo. The film stars Chris Hemsworth, Rudhraksh Jaiswal, Randeep Hooda, Priyanshu Painyuli, and David Harbour.
It is rather startling to see the Russo brothers, infamous for their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have their names behind an action thriller that shows a complete disregard for story, character, and logic. Granted, I myself was a big fan of only one film the Russos directed from the MCU: Avengers: Infinity War. I had a rather tepid response to the Russos' other directorial works in the MCU, but I do know that the likes of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame were at least making conceited efforts towards developing character and telling a thoughtful story. So, how in the world can the Russos, and director Sam Hargrave while we're at it, show an almost willful ignorance towards much of what made so many people fall in love with nearly every new Marvel film? People didn't love Iron Man or Thor just because they had some cool fight scenes. People loved their origin stories, their rise to stardom, and all their little quirks and one-liners. Then again, how surprised should we be, considering this is the directorial debut for Hargrave: a longtime stunt man for the Russos and Marvel?
The sales pitch for Extraction would revolve around two things: a charming and perfectly safe lead actor in Chris Hemsworth, and that the movie brings some eye-popping stunt-work and action sequences that could be studied in film schools. Here's the problem: good-looking action can only take you so far. If there's nothing to fuel your investment in who's fighting or shooting, the action is no better than watching two dead-faced androids duke it out. Extraction's crown jewel is a continuous 12 minute sequence involving fist fights and car chases. I hate to knock something that clearly took a lot of time and effort, but I barely noticed that the scene was shot as one long take, mostly due to the murky cinematography and the fact that there was nothing stimulating about all the violence happening on screen. Some moments are just begging and pleading for a one-liner or something witty from Hemsworth, because it'd be the closest thing we could get to a payoff. It's kind of sad, actually, to see how the film tries to cram in as many cool-looking action sequences as possible, completely ignorant to what really puts meat on their bones: a good story and relatable characters.
So Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake: a mercenary who is recruited to rescue Ovi Mahajan Jr. (Jaiswal): the son of Indian drug lord, Ovi Mahajan Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi). Ovi is being held for ransom by Amir Asif (Painyuli): another drug lord who presides over Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rake is able to find Ovi, but Asif orders a lockdown of Dhaka. Rake must fight his way through Asif's forces in order to bring Ovi to safety.
No, seriously. Those four sentences make up virtually the entire story of the movie. As you might imagine, the majority of the plot consists of Rake fighting off evil henchmen, thus the film's excessive violence and lack of story structure. There are some other characters that show up along the way, but their contributions to the film are so unclear, it makes you wonder why Hargrave and the Russos didn't just go with making Extraction a one-man vehicle for Hemsworth. Hemsworth is already carrying the entire movie on his back, so there would be a lot more intrigue if the film found clever and creative ways to have Tyler Rake navigate through Dhaka without any sort of outside assistance, perhaps using any violent struggles or moments of isolation to better convey any flaws or vulnerabilities he may have. What am I talking about, though? Taking such an approach would require putting actual thought and depth into the story, and clearly, this will not fly in a movie where anything and everything that does not involve shooting guns or beating someone to a bloody pulp is of little to no importance.
- Despite the violence overload and the shallow storytelling, Extraction is, thankfully, not boring. Part of this high point may be due to the fact that I was craving an action movie when I initially watched it, but I must give credit where credit is due: impressive stunt work is impressive stunt work. Action becomes a whole lot more watchable when there is not a lot of shaky cam and rapid-fire editing to assault your eyeballs. Extraction may not be as vibrant as the John Wick films, but the action is still perfectly comprehensible and goes out of its way to make clearly defined spaces where the action can take place. Hargrave also has a good sense of knowing how to not let one action scene overstay its welcome. Every car chase, fist fight, or other confrontation is about the length it should be, allowing every new action scene to start up fresh. Of course, it all ends up being too much of a good thing. The action looks and is extremely well-designed. Unfortunately, it all rings extremely hollow, and the overall experience is about as middling as you can get for an R-rated action thriller.
- Joe Russo should be banned from all screenwriting activities for the foreseeable future, because it is inexcusable for Extraction to have such a carelessly concocted screenplay. It's bad enough that the movie starts up its main conflict with essentially no build-up or exploration of who all these characters are and why they matter. The cardinal sin lies in how there is so much nothing in so many areas. The story has nothing special to it. The characters have nothing unique or memorable about them. The dialogue has nothing in terms of inspiration or flare (also not helping is Chris Hemsworth mumbling his lines repeatedly). The action, not surprisingly, is the only thing filled with life, and it can do nothing to break free from the shackles of poor screenwriting. Extraction is listed to be a shade under two hours at 117 minutes, but it must be known that the credits begin right at about the 103 minute mark, and believe me, I fast forwarded through the credits to make sure there was no kind of dumb mid-credits or post-credits scene. There isn't one, so that means the movie needs almost a full 15 minutes to list all its credits, which are likely all the people who worked on the stunt crew.
There are times when you can literally feel the panic from Russo, when he realizes that he forgot to resolve an important part of the story or include some pertinent information. There's a scene where Rake and Ovi have a sit-down chat by a bedside, when Rake tells Ovi that he had a wife and a six-year old son, the latter of which died from lymphoma. The conversation between the two is the first time in the movie that we learn anything about Rake's character other than that he's a bad-ass mercenary, and we know it will likely be the last time that Rake will be able to have any type of, "sit down and talk about our feelings" discussion, because we're relatively close to the end. This scene would be a good opportunity to have Rake and Ovi sympathize with each other and maybe talk about their respective family troubles, but it's all a little too late. By this point, the movie is already far along in its "story", that it's almost a slap in the face for everything to come to a screeching halt just so that Russo can slip in a little characterization for Rake. Besides, it's not enough to have Rake just sit in a chair and brood over his past family life. At the very least, Russo could use this mini-backstory to fuel why Rake agreed to take this mission or maybe show how his past traumas motivate him to be a mercenary.
The worst moment of all happens at the very end right before the credits, and I am wrestling with the urge to go against my own rules and give away what I mean, but nope, no spoilers means no spoilers, so I must try my best with making my point without sounding too vague. Basically, something that should have happened during the movie's climax doesn't happen, so to make up for it, Russo shoehorns in the resolution in one of the most ludicrous fashions I have seen from a movie ending in a long time. It's not that the resolution is done in some kind of implausible Final Destination fashion, but that it's done so forcefully, that it has absolutely no payoff or satisfaction whatsoever. In fact, it was a moment that took me from looking at the movie with plain indifference to outright disgust. It's a good thing that Joe Russo wrote this screenplay after he became co-director of the highest grossing film of all time, because Extraction's screenplay wouldn't cut it as a first draft in Screenwriting 101.
Trust me: I want to give Extraction's stunt team and choreographers the praise they deserve, because the work that went into making the film's action scenes is not something you can do over the weekend. The action prevents Extraction from ever becoming boring, and my goodness I don't know how harsh this review would be if the movie was boring on top of all its other problems. Sadly, all those hardworking stunt people have their work cut down by a rather pathetic screenplay, almost impressive in the way it gives no regard to story, character, or a satisfying conclusion. It's the kind of film that Michael Bay would make, if he wasn't allowed to blow stuff up every 15 minutes. There is no valid explanation behind how the Russos can go from top of the mountain with the last two Avengers films to this near-excruciating action thriller, somehow becoming a record-breaking hit on Netflix. Even better: there is talks of a sequel already in development. The Extraction cinematic universe is soon upon us!
Snowpiercer is directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho and is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob. The film stars Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, John Hurt, and Ed Harris.
Is it possible that Snowpiercer is both one of the smartest and one of the dumbest movies you could ever imagine? The critical consensus would suggest the former, no doubt based on the almost headlong way that the film picks up nearly every post-apocalypse and environmental theme in existence, while not hesitating to also pile on themes and ideas of social hierarchy and human society. Perhaps it all boils down to ambition: Snowpiercer is easily one of the most ambitious movies to have come out in the 2010s. What other film to take place in one setting would have the audacity to tackle every possible theme that can be squeezed into a two hour run-time, when it's inevitable that something is going to stop making sense along the way? On the flip side, such an ambitious pursuit means that the film is going to do at least one or two things right. Hell, it ends up doing at least one or two things great. But when we talk about Snowpiercer being a dumb movie, we are referring to the way that the film takes ideas, throws them at the wall, and whatever sticks gets put into the movie. To say Snowpiercer is both a smart and dumb movie is a way of saying we get the best and the worst of the film's adrenaline-boosted ride for glory. Thankfully though, the good heavily outweighs the bad, so let's at least get it on the record that I find this to be a rather fine film that deserves a lot of praise.
For my entire life, I have always been fascinated by trains, yet I still am not sure how to explain the reasoning behind it. I played with train toys when I was younger, Thomas the Tank Engine was my go-to childhood show, and I felt naturally drawn to any movie or show that involved a train. Maybe a part of it is because trains move you to where you need to go, and I have always been someone that feels as if he needs to keep moving, aka always doing something of value. So when I first heard of Snowpiercer, you can bet I made it a top priority to find the time to see it. Unfortunately, the movie was released during that awkward period in life where I never went to the theater, so I never got that big-screen experience of the Snowpiercer train. Nonetheless, the film was a fun, worthwhile viewing during the one afternoon I finally got to see it, and it always stuck with me since, mostly for the reasons mentioned above. So upon a second viewing just recently, my thoughts on the film remain undeterred, and I imagine the same reaction for any more future viewings.
So, Snowpiercer is the name of the circumnavigational train where the film takes place. After an ill-fated attempt at stopping global warming, an ice age has ravaged nearly all of planet Earth. The surviving members of humanity spend their lives on the train, which is run by a mysterious person known as Wilford. Seventeen years go by on the train, and the survivors are segregated: the wealthy elites enjoy luxuries in the front cars, while the poor live in the mucky, overcrowded tail cars. Among the neglected tail members is Curtis Everett (Evans), who sparks a revolt and goes on a mission to the get to the front of the train.
Because Snowpiercer is always moving forward, there aren't too many specific plot points where characters are grouped together in a specific location. Honestly, if I were to spoil the entire plot of the movie, it would only be slightly longer than the plot summary you just read. Once the movie gets going with the tail revolt, it doesn't slow down for a single second, not until near the end when it sort of runs out of physical space to work in, and the film is almost forced to go into a meditative state, where it further dissects the main ideas and themes that are still alive and kicking. Given the pacing and the story structure, Snowpiercer is a nitpicker's worst nightmare. Questions like, "How do people use the bathroom" and, "How does electricity work on the train" are given little to no explanation, and that's simply because there's no need to give such trivial matters any explanation. What matters is the film's structure and what the structure represents.
- The one idea that works the most in Snowpiercer is how the train acts as an allegory on the human social hierarchy. The tail cars house the most deprived and neglected survivors of the apocalypse, while the front cars are home to the elites. Fed up with their state of living, the tail members revolt against the elite, demanding answers from the mysterious Wilford in charge of it all. I would not argue too much that Snowpiercer is also an allegory on capitalism, because it's never explored too deeply how exactly people on the train are put into one social class or another. I think the heart of the allegory lies in the treatment of the tail members, and what is represented through their eventual revolt. Armed guards constantly watch over the tail members, forcing them to sit in groups and even going as far as to take some of their children away. The revolt begins when Curtis risks his life to prove that the guns used by the guards have no bullets, implying that the real weapon used to keep the tail members in line is fear.
The world of Snowpiercer utilizes fear by tapping into the idea that the divide between the wealthy and the poor is rooted in control. Minister Mason (Swinton) constantly talks down to the tail members, using a shoe as a symbol for how the tail belongs at the very bottom/foot of the train's priority list. The guards amputate a man by freezing one of his arms and then hitting the arm with a hammer, all for the other tail members to see. These early moments in the film are examples of how Mason and the guards use intimidation and punishment to give the impression of control. After all, aren't intimidation and punishment meant to invoke some form of fear? The truth of the matter though is that Mason and the guards only have the impression of control, and when Curtis reveals this by proving the guns have no bullets, it gives the poor the encouragement they need to finally break free.
In real-world society, fear and control tend to keep poor, oppressed people trapped in their own crappy way of living. Fear can be rooted in the decisions that people make and the habits they develop over time. Some people may also feel they have little to no control over their own life. But we all know that fear is an obstacle we can overcome, and that everyone can control what they believe and what choices they make. The tail members in Snowpiercer break the fear and control barriers that have kept them trapped for so long, no longer willing to be defined by the social hierarchy that the train has established.
- It is reasonable to err on the side of caution when it comes to an action movie that takes place in a confined setting such as a train. The action in Snowpiercer is anything but confined and indistinguishable: it's clean, hard-hitting, and creative. Fight scenes between the tail members and the train's security personnel do an outstanding job of showing who is where and making something truly interesting out of watching a bunch of people punch, kick, and swing axes at each other. For example, there is one fight scene where the train security personnel are aware of an upcoming tunnel, and thus, don night vision goggles. When Curtis and the tail members realize what is about to happen, the scene then cuts to a near first-person point of view, where we see everything through night vision and watch as the tail members scramble to stay alive. When things are running at full speed in the middle of the film, the action operates like a runaway truck: barreling its way forward and smashing through anything that dares to stand in its way.
- I suppose I could do nothing but continue to give endless praise to Snowpiercer, but I can't come out and call it a dumb movie without mentioning some parts about it that are, well, kind of dumb. A lot of what's dumb about Snowpiercer revolves around one simple question: why a train? A train makes sense for the sake of commentary on hierarchical society, but, the idea of having a train run perpetually around the world on a clearly defined train track where the survivors can tell things such as when it's New Year's Day, just seems like a logistical disaster waiting to happen. It's almost as if the train was concocted with the purpose of creating a new social hierarchy, instead of letting social hierarchy be something that spawns naturally as a product of the new environment that the survivors are adapting to. Believing something to be forced instead of naturally developed over time hurts the intended allegory, even if the movie makes little to no mention of how the hierarchy was created. An easier way to say this is that Snowpiercer is almost forcing us to believe that the way things are on the train is just how they are, and that there's little need to ask questions. The "being dumb" issue lies in that Snowpiercer can't quite bridge the gap between its thought-provoking ideas and the concept that leads to those thought-provoking ideas. It's super cool watching what unfolds when we're on the train. However, when it comes to the story behind how the train was conceived and how human society got there, well, I guess it's better than staying at home and inevitably freezing to death.
If you're going to watch Snowpiercer, you sort of have to accept that a lot of dumb comes along with all the smarts. More often than not though, Snowpiercer is very smart, particularly in the way the film represents the real-world divide between the elite and the oppressed, providing an analysis of human social hierarchy that goes above and beyond many other post-apocalypse films. Snowpiercer also has some kick-ass action, so if you're not in the mood to be an academic scholar, the movie also works as two hours of almost nonstop entertainment. The casting is great, and there's a high re-watchability level to boot. With so much good stuff on the surface, I think it's okay if we don't think too hard about some of the dumber, more iffy stuff that lives underneath.
Zombies and Trains
Train To Busan is directed by Yeon Sang-ho and stars Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, and Ma Dong-seok.
It is rather impressive that Train To Busan, a film whose plot doesn't extend much beyond zombies attacking passengers on a train, works as well as it does. Director Yeon Sang-ho has crafted not just what is an exciting zombie thriller, but a zombie thriller that breathes life into several of its characters and deals an emotional gut punch, all while finding various ways to keep its plot moving forward. There is much more going on here than just zombies popping up in swarms and then people getting eaten to death left and right. Okay, there is a lot of that in this movie, but my point is, Train to Busan has structure: the zombie attacks are all part of a grand plan and not disjointed sequences that pop up at almost complete random. In addition, the human survivors that the film establishes over time each have a fleshed out reason for survival. To just say a character wants to live is not enough for us to get invested; what is the character living for, and is it something we can grab onto? Speaking of human survivors, it's also worth mentioning that Train to Busan doesn't leave out the sort of behaviors humans tend to exhibit in a time of crisis, and considering we are currently in a time of crisis in the real world, it makes watching this kind of movie right now a little more frightening.
The story follows fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo) and his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). It is Su-an's birthday, and she wishes to spend the day with her mother, who lives in the city of Busan. Seok-woo and Su-an's mother are divorced, but Seok-woo decides to honor his daughter's wish. They board a train to Busan, but before it departs the station, a sickly young woman sneaks on-board. The woman quickly turns into a zombie and attacks a train attendant. Several other attendants and passengers are infected in the ensuing chaos. TV stations report that an epidemic is spreading throughout the country: people everywhere are turning into zombies and overwhelming entire cities. One city that has become an established safe-zone, however, is Busan. The conductor gets clearance to take the train to Busan, and Seok-woo must work with the other surviving train passengers to hold off the zombie hoard and make it to safety.
I don't quite understand the criticism that Train To Busan is, "Snowpiercer with zombies". While both films primarily take place on a train, there are vast differences in their respective executions. Snowpiercer wants to be a political allegory that makes commentary on humanity's class hierarchy, while Train To Busan is mostly a matter of survival. True, there is some social commentary in Train To Busan, but I am not going to try and make a compelling argument that the film is some sort of deep-think tank that would make films like 2001: A Space Odyssey blush. Snowpiercer wants to run with as many thought-provoking ideas as it can carry, while Train To Busan functions best as a work of entertainment.
- With the majority of the film taking place in a condensed setting, Yeon Sang-ho must take on the tall order of keeping the plot in motion and making sure the action never goes stale. Sang-ho accomplishes both with magnificent aplomb. Each zombie attack pushes the characters into a different, more challenging situation, and every time the characters must act, the stakes feel higher than before. Seok-woo's primary goal throughout the film is to protect his daughter, but as the number of survivors diminishes and the amount of useful resources dry up, Seok-woo eventually gets to the point where he can use almost nothing but his bare hands to keep Su-an safe. What also helps keep the plot moving is the survivors learning more and more about how the zombies behave, and how they use this newfound knowledge to navigate through the train cars. About midway through the film, it is discovered that the zombies do not react when the train goes through a dark tunnel. In addition, the zombies are drawn to noise. Seok-woo and a few others he teams up with take advantage of darkness and noise to either sneak past or fight against various zombie hoards.
Something that stands out about the film's action is that there is utterly no gun-play whatsoever. I don't even recall seeing a gun at any point during the film's sequences on the train. The closest thing to an actual weapon that the survivors use is a baseball bat, and baseball bats only get them so far. I think the primary reason the action works so well is the characters always seem to be in danger and are never thrust into illogical scenarios they could not possibly survive. Perhaps the better way to say it is that the action looks and feels realistic, and characters that survive manage to do so because they make smart, logical choices, not solely because they have plot armor. The musical score by Jang Young-gyu further adds to the adrenaline with a mixture of high-octane, fast-tempo tunes and ambient sounds to fully capture the extreme emotions that the characters are feeling. The action is never about how many zombies can come running after you at once or how much blood can be spilled; it's about putting the characters in as tense and horrifying a situation as possible and then finding ways to make that situation even more tense and horrifying.
- Train to Busan is extremely light when it comes to details surrounding the source of the zombie outbreak, and that's to the film's benefit. The horror movies that stand out are those that rely on atmosphere and ideas, not jump scares. This zombie outbreak is never about finding the source and stopping it from spreading around the world: it's about the characters being thrust into a situation they didn't expect nor want, and now they must find a way to adapt and survive. To pile on scientific facts and conspiracy theories would significantly reduce the sense of horror that permeates throughout the film, because then we would have a full understanding of the situation, and it would not be able to terrify us as much. Leaving an element of mystery ought to be encouraged under the right circumstances, and I think Yeon Sang-ho fully understood that explaining the reasoning behind the zombie outbreak belonged near the very bottom of this film's to-do list. The less you know, the scarier it will be.
- The only place I will criticize Train To Busan is its lack of depth with the social commentary it puts on the table. Seok-woo and the other survivors he befriends end up having to deal with not just the zombie hoards on the train; they also have to deal with another group of train survivors that show they only care about themselves. In this time of pandemic we're experiencing right now, it's as fascinating as it is disturbing to see the way people are going about either hoarding supplies or going about their life as if nothing is wrong. People will always be driven by their own self-interest, and even in the worst of times, self-interest is on full display. Now, obviously, Train To Busan could not have known about what's going on now with the coronavirus, but even so, the film still has a chance to capitalize on speaking about how certain human behaviors never change and how that lack of change has led to such extreme divides between certain groups of people around the world. Unfortunately, such commentary is left kind of dangling on the tree. You can see it hanging there, and it's a lovely thing to look at. The problem is that no one ever decides to pick it and make something wonderful out of its contents.
Zombie movies can make for great entertainment, but Train To Busan is more than great entertainment: it's a zombie film with brains and heart. The characters feel more than one-dimensional, the action is exhilarating, the scare factor is absolutely there, and, as the cherry on top, the movie might make you want to cry once or twice. The social commentary may be a tad lacking, but the fact that it even exists within the film is enough for it to still pass as a positive. Train To Busan's agenda is not in creating a zombie outbreak scenario and then slowly resolving it. The film is all about survival: the characters are in a situation they cannot fully explain and will never be able to fully explain. All that matters is getting to safety. If we're looking for an example of what a zombie apocalypse might really be like, I think Train To Busan might be one of the best examples. So much of the film feels quite relevant to what is happening now with the coronavirus (minus the actual zombies, of course), and for as long as this outbreak goes on, the smarter this film is going to look.
Greetings, dear readers! Unless you've been living under a rock for the past month, month and a half, you are fully aware of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has been spreading like wildfire all across the world. Unfortunately, we are still in the early stages of this whole thing, and practices of social distancing and the closing of everything "non-essential" is going to be the new norm for the forseeable future. One of those "non-essentials" is movie theaters, which means that I will obviously not have the opportunity to see new releases, not unless I decide to go the VOD route, which I am not sure of as of now.
I have not been posting anywhere near as frequently as I used to, mostly because other life responsibilities/endeavors have sprung up, sucking away time I could be dedicating to writing reviews. However, as I will be staying at home for more extended periods of time, it means more opportunities for me to try and update more frequently. I am still hoping to make progress with my series of Godzilla and Best Picture reviews, progress which has been totally stagnant as of late.
So while there will likely be few to no reviews of 2020 films as long as this pandemic is going on, this is also an opportunity for me to get back to the monthly themese I had done a while back. So starting in April, I will be bringing back my monthly theme reviews and bring reviews of all sorts of movies.
Until then, stay safe, and I will be back in business with reviews starting next month. We will get through this together!
Hide and SEE-k
The Invisible Man is directed by Leigh Whannell and is based on the novel of the same name by H.G. Wells. The film starts Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen. The film is also a reboot of The Invisible Man film series from the 1930s-1950s.
We are not even a full quarter of the way through 2020, and I almost convinced that I will not see another mainstream Hollywood film for the remainder of the year that will give me the kind of enjoyable experience I got from seeing The Invisible Man. At first, it appears what we have is a sneaky tactic by Universal to try and light a fire under their defunct MonsterVerse that crashed and burned after the 2017 flop that was The Mummy. Luckily, director Leigh Whannell assured us in an interview that The Invisible Man was and never will be part of any kind of cinematic universe, so thank goodness we can wipe cinematic universes from the list of topics to cover in this review. What The Invisible Man is is a standalone film that brings the themes and ideas of H.G. Wells' novel into the 21st century, specifically as a commentary for the #MeToo movement and how women are treated in abusive relationships. In this period of the film year where a lot of dreck gets dumped, The Invisible Man is a stand out that brings us the full course of horror goodies: scares, ideas, characters, and, the cherry on top, fun.
That seems a bit paradoxical: a film intending to be a relevant commentary on domestic abuse is also fun? Maybe it's just that the film matches my own sense of fun when it comes to horror movies: an evil force torments the protagonist who desperately tries to get someone else to believe what they're saying is true. Eventually comes the climatic high when the evil force is exposed to the non-believers, and all hell breaks loose. I'm aware that sort of constitutes as a spoiler to say other characters aside from Elisabeth Moss are exposed to The Invisible Man, but you've probably seen the bits in the trailer(s) in which security guards get tossed around like rag dolls by something they can't see, so it ought to be no surprise that the plot doesn't end up playing the, "it's all in the main character's head" angle.
What the plot is about is the efforts of Cecelia Kass (Moss) to try and get away from her abusive husband, Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen). Cecelia barely makes a clean getaway in the middle of the night, and she goes to hide out with her childhood friend: police detective James Lanier (Hodge). Two weeks after escaping, Cecelia gets news that Adrian has committed suicide. Not only that, but Adrian's will leaves Cecelia with several million dollars, the money being handled by Adrian's brother Tom (Dorman). It seems like Cecelia can finally stop living in fear, that is until she starts to experience a series of bizarre events that send her life spiraling out of control: passing out during a job interview, her email claiming she sent a disparaging message to her sister Emily (Dyer), James' daughter Sydney mistaking Cecelia for hitting her. Cecelia realizes all these events are being triggered by some sort of unseen figure, a figure she believes to be Adrian. Cecelia claims that Adrian had faked his own death and, knowing her husband was a pioneer in the field of optics, has found a way to become invisible.
It is easy to construe The Invisible Man like a knock off super villain story, in which there is some deep fascination in how Adrian (or just "Griffin", as the history of The Invisible Man character prefers) invented a way to become invisible. This is of no interest whatsoever to Leigh Whannel, because this version of The Invisible Man isn't about Griffin, or at least, it's not told from his perspective. To treat The Invisible Man like some superhero onion that needs its layers picked apart would be a disservice to the film's modern-day approach and its efforts towards being scary. The best horror films almost always leave something to the viewer's imagination; would The Invisible Man still be as effective if there was some elaborate backstory explaining how Griffin became invisible and why he chose invisibility as a means to torment his wife? The question is never, "How did Adrian become invisible?". The question instead is, "What is Cecelia going to do, knowing she is dealing with something she can neither see nor explain?" Meanwhile, Cecelia is framed as being helpless, and, at multiple times, as if she is the one at fault. This puts us face first against what can be considered one of the most disturbing aspects of abusive relationships: the woman feels trapped with almost no way out.
- I am unsure if it's a matter of coincidence that Elisabeth Moss's career, up to this point in time, has been almost entirely devoid of rom-coms and other films that one may describe with words such as, 'sweet', 'goofy', or 'feel-good'. Nonetheless, Moss is excellent in her highly-demanding role in which she needs to look and act scared, exhausted, angry, and every other possible emotion in between. The movements and expressions that Moss makes during line deliveries or when she is searching around a dark room make a whole world of difference: twitching her head, making her whole body tremble when she sees something terrifying, and even once going into the fetal position. Moss strives to make her character's situation seem as realistic as possible, completely avoiding any hackneyed wide-eyed expressions or high-pitched screams. Cecelia is asking herself, "Why is this happening to me?", but at the same time, she takes matters into her own hands to try and figure out how to deal with the invisible force that is taunting her. Scenes of Griffin taunting Cecelia would get stale after a while if that's all they were: Cecelia getting scared because, well, it's a horror movie. Every new scare scene is building off the previous one: Cecelia is either one step closer towards exposing her invisible menace, or Griffin does something to destroy her life a little bit more. Moss brings her character to life so much, that you almost feel as rattled as Cecelia is by around the hour and 20 minute mark, in which she is pretty much running on fumes.
- Leigh Whannel uses some neat framing techniques to frighten viewers, sometimes requiring the use of one's imagination as opposed to simply giving away where The Invisible Man is located. Several times throughout the film, Whannel shows Cecelia walking or doing something in one room and then pans the camera over to a different, empty room. A horror director normally might rely on a loud noise to suggest that the protagonist/horror victim is not alone, but Whannel understands that noise is the last thing he should utilize to try and generate scares. Whannell takes seemingly pointless frames to enhance the uncertainty of where The Invisible Man is and how close he currently is to Cecelia. By panning over to a different room, Whannel makes us ask ourselves, "Is the invisible man over in this room, and if so, where is he currently standing?" In other frames, Whannel lets us know that The Invisible Man is present, but does not emphasize the sign(s), thus forcing the viewer to try and make out where he is. The best example of this is during one of Cecelia's early encounters with Griffin: she goes outside to look around, her cold breath visible. One medium shot has Cecelia on the right side of the frame, and during this shot, we see another cold breath come out of thin air. There is no dramatic, "DUN-DUN-DUN!!" music nor any pan and zooming to center in on the the invisible man's breath; the way the shot is framed suggests to the viewer something is right next to Cecelia, but the frame remains relatively static when a small cold breath shows up right next to Cecelia's right shoulder, which you could miss if you're not watching closely enough.
Sometimes, Whannel just shows an empty part of a room, without any indication that the Invisible Man is there. It's only Cecelia's angry screams or something like a stove-top skillet catching fire that tells us something else is in the room. The main reason this can be scary is because we cannot make out the steps of how something caught on fire or make sense of why Cecelia looks like she's talking to an imaginary friend. Yes, there are moments where The Invisible Man makes footprints or does something to clearly give his position away, but overall, Whannel is very effective when it comes to balancing those times where we know with certainty The Invisible Man is there versus those where there's a sliver of doubt if he's actually present.
- The Invisible Man stumbles a bit during its ending which is difficult to fully describe without giving away massive spoilers. I can understand where some may deem the ending as clever, but at least for my tastes, the ending leaves things a little too open-ended, especially because hardly anything about the ending suggests, "Sequel!" Normally, we can say a character has gone from this point to that point over the course of the film, but for Cecelia and a few other characters, it's not exactly clear what we can deem as closure for them. In other words, none of the characters (especially Cecelia), feel as if their entire story has been told; once all is said and done over the film's 124 minutes, the story feels about 85-90 percent complete. The quick fix for this would be to just have an extra 5-10 minutes, showing where all the characters are at some time later, which also indicates to me that the story leaves basically nothing behind to warrant a sequel. The only future film(s) I have heard of regarding The Invisible Man is an Invisible Woman film starring Elizabeth Banks, which suggests such a film will be completely unrelated to this one. Anyway, I think there just needed to be a little bit more tacked on to the end to give us a permanent stance on why characters made the final decisions they did and how that decision may affect them going forward.
I basically never go see a movie at least twice while it's out in theaters, but I may have to break that trend with this Invisible Man reboot: a smart narrative about an issue all too pertinent in today's society that is as equally effective as a fun and scary thrill ride. Elisabeth Moss crushes it in the lead role, and Leigh Whannel utilizes some creative framing techniques to increase the film's fear factor. The ending leaves a few too many questions behind, but seeing how others have reacted, that falls more in the line of nitpicks than a gripe that matches the critical consensus of the film. Honestly, The Invisible Man may have been the most enjoyable time I had in a theater since seeing John Wick 3 almost a year ago. If I can't find the time to see it again while it's in theaters, I will likely grab the Blu-Ray as soon as it hits the store shelves. Who needs a MonsterVerse if these standalone reboots work well on their own?
Sonic the Hedgehog is directed by Jeff Fowler and stars Ben Schwartz as the titular Sonic. Jim Carrey, James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Natasha Rothwell, Adam Pally, and Neal McDonough also star.
When Warner Bros. released the live action Pokemon: Detective Pikachu a year ago, it was the pinnacle moment in the history of video game movies: after years and years of critical and commercial failures, the genre, at long last, had something it could deem an accomplishment, an honorary medal that reads, "Congratulations! We made a film that is NOT one of the biggest piles of donkey shit to come out this year!" The only thing that Detective Pikachu couldn't tell us, however, is would the film's success be just a flash in the pan, or perhaps the key to open the floodgates that would bring things like respect and credibility to arguably the most dysfunctional film genre in history? Detective Pikachu could boast one of the most famous media franchises of the past two, two and a half decades, so whose to say that Paramount couldn't do the same thing with Sonic the Hedgehog: a video game franchise that dates all the way back to the early 90's?
Believe it or not, but ideas of a Sonic the Hedgehog film adaptation had been in the works shortly after the franchise debuted. However, Sega CEO Tom Kalinske, was pessimistic about such an adaptation being successful, citing the flops that were the live-action Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter films. It wasn't until February 2018 that Paramount announced the official release of a live-action Sonic the Hedgehog film, targeting a release date of November 2019. The first trailer dropped in April 2019 and was nothing short of a disaster. Fans and critics expressed outrage over the hideous, overly humanoid design of Sonic. The criticism was so rampant, that director Jeff Fowler, clearly determined to make this film work, announced that the film would be delayed until February 2020 so that Sonic could be redesigned. When the new trailer dropped in November 2019, not only was the new design highly praised for looking more like Sonic from the video games, it seemed as if people were starting to look forward to this live-action adaptation. When the film finally got its theatrical release, in what can only be considered a small miracle, Sonic the Hedgehog not only set the record for biggest opening weekend by a video game adaptation, it received fairly decent reviews from critics as well. Assuming at this point, the film will be a sizable box office success, Paramount will get the green light to proceed with, as the mid-credits scene suggests, what could be a Sonic the Hedgehog-based cinematic universe.
After an opening sequence in which we see Sonic being chased through the streets of San Francisco, we learn that the speedy blue hedgehog comes from an alien planet, where he is cared for by an owl named Longclaw (Jay Fulks). Longclaw tells Sonic he must conceal his powers, giving him a bag of rings that are capable of transporting Sonic to other planets. When a group of echidnas attack, Sonic uses one of the rings to be transported to Green Hills, Montana on Earth. Several years pass, and poor Sonic, living in secrecy from the human race, starts to feel lonely and depressed. Angered by this, Sonic uses his super speed to trigger an electromagnetic pulse across the entire Pacific Northwest, which calls the presence of the zany, scientific genius Dr. Robotnik (Carrey). While trying to hide from Robotnik, Sonic stumbles across Green Hills sheriff Tom Wachowski (Marsden), who accidentally makes Sonic lose his bag of rings. Wachowski and Sonic then team up to help Sonic retrieve his rings and fend off Dr. Robotnik.
- There are those times when you know an actor or actress are just perfect for a certain role, and had Paramount not cast Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, I am just not sure that Sonic the Hedgehog would be as functional as it is. The whole movie operates like a 90's nostalgia train ride: Sonic was in his early years as a video game character, and his updated design in the movie is meant to match what the character looked like, speeding through the various levels of each of his games. The early scene that takes place on Sonic's world matches the infamous Green Hill Zone, and if you have never played Sonic the Hedgehog before, the Green Hills, Montana reference will probably fly right over your head.
But I was talking about Jim Carrey. The 1990's were also the time when Carrey and his goofy, blaring shtick shined brightest, so it makes all the sense in the world for Carrey to be cast as Robotnik: a villain that the Sonic games have never, ever taken too seriously. The best part is that the histrionics of Robotnik are not a byproduct of Carrey being cast in the role; the character's goofy exterior is a fundamental component of how he operates, so in order to make Robotnik flourish and come to life the way he does, the character requires the comedic talents of someone like Carrey. With years of experience in similar roles, Carrey is right at home in this film, and, on his own, would be more than enough to prevent the film from sinking into total mediocrity.
- What puts Sonic the Hedgehog over the top though is that the film offers more than just another memorable Jim Carrey performance. Sonic the Hedgehog has comedy....that actually works! Never does the film stoop to fart jokes and lame pop culture references to try and get a laugh; okay, there are pop culture references, but the film has the decency to use them to poke fun at actors, movies, and TV Shows, and not just quote famous lines and phrases just because they can. With that being said, screenwriters Pat Casey and Jim Miller prove that they care to make the comedy presentable to all ages, the same sort of comedic appeal that makes many Disney/Pixar films so beloved by children and adults alike. Every joke feels like its own separate entity, thus why it's so hard to see any of them coming from a mile away. I would not say that I ever found the film to be laugh out loud funny, but the comedy could have been so much worse than it actually is, and that's more than enough for me to give the comedy my seal of approval.
- Where Sonic the Hedgehog leaves much more to be desired though is in its underwhelming, low-stakes plot. Once Wachowski discovers Sonic, the movie turns into a "go to this place and retrieve this thing" adventure-style film, but one whose plot doesn't transcend into anything beyond a standard buddy, road-trip film. Sonic and Wachowski get into all sorts of shenanigans and have to outrun Robotnik here and there. Never at any point though does Sonic seem vulnerable or as if he is in any real danger, thwarting everything Robotnik throws at him without even breaking a sweat. In addition, the sub-plot turned main plot that is Sonic needing to retrieve his lost rings doesn't do much other than to spice up the climax. The rings are just a means for Sonic to get from his world to Earth; they don't contribute any sort of thematic depth to the film nor do they operate at all like how they do in the video games (the rings are what keep Sonic alive if he gets hit by an enemy). In all honesty though, the rings were probably the only mechanism for explaining, without sounding totally idiotic, how Sonic could get from his world to Earth. Anyway, the main point being that Sonic the Hedgehog is an action-adventure that suffers from a lead character who always seems to be on top of things, except when his curiosity ends up causing trouble for others.
I am not going to come out and declare that video game movies have finally turned a corner. Detective Pikachu was a nice start, and Sonic the Hedgehog is already looking to be the troubled genre's next big thing. However, the smell of cinematic garbage still lingers too strong for me, and it may be years before the stench starts to go away. What might help clear out the stench could be a Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, which I am unsure if people are willing to buy into, since we are still going through a bit of cinematic universe fatigue. Sonic the Hedgehog is just one film, and for all the delays the film suffered from, most notably the delay in updating Sonic's design in response to the heavy criticism of the initial one, it is rather impressive that the film still ended up as good as it did. Jim Carrey crushes it as the villain Dr. Robotnik, Carrey revitalizing the comedic style he was a champion of during the 1990's. While the plot isn't anything spectacular, the movie still boasts plenty of effective jokes that makes it a suitable comedy for people of all ages. I can go around to family, friends, and co-workers and say to them, "Sonic the Hedgehog is actually pretty good" with a straight face. Who knows what other video game characters have true film potential?
Recommend? Yes. This is a film Sonic and non-Sonic fans can both enjoy.
The Thin Red Line
1917 is directed and co-written by Sam Mendes and stars George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
It ought to be mentioned right out of the gate that I have a high level of enthusiasm for anything and everything by Sam Mendes. While I can't argue that the man should be placed into one of the top tiers of film directors, the ones populated by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Christoper Nolan, I won't deny that I've gotten a great deal of enjoyment out of everything I have seen from him, American Beauty being a film I especially hold near and dear to my heart. Mendes' directorial resume isn't as long as one may think, so he tends to float in and out of my memory bank as I try to keep up with new releases. Anyway, Mendes' film-making style over the years has largely been about taking a relatively straightforward concept and dressing it up into something more complex and thought-provoking than what said concept appears to be on paper, one major criticism being his films are not as smart as they think they are. The one constant, however, that pretty much everyone is in agreement about on Mendes' films is their elegant cinematography. Mendes has had the honor of working with some of the most famous cinematographers in history: Conrad L. Hall and Roger Deakins, the latter of which takes on the cinematography for 1917. So if you've never been a fan of Mendes, chances are I will not be able to use 1917 to sway you into thinking differently about him. What I will advocate for though is 1917 as not just a Sam Mendes film, but as an alluring war film: one that drives us knee-deep into the trenches of World War I and rattles us until we're as shaken as the soldiers on the battlefield.
1917 follows the travels of two young British soldiers: Lance Corporals Will Schofield (MacKay) and Tom Blake (Chapman). General Erinmore (Firth) assigns the two the task of delivering a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a planned attack against a retreating German front. One of the soldiers in the 2nd Battalion is Blake's brother Joseph (Madden), and if the message is not delivered on time, the Germans will ambush and likely kill all 1600 men in the Battalion. Schofield and Blake set out on a dangerous journey, where they must make their way past German soldiers, while also enduring the gritty World War I landscape.
Not much meat to the plot, but there doesn't need to be. 1917 falls into the category of experience film: in which the plot is not about going from Point A to Point B, and eventually culminating at Point Z; it's about characters getting through just Points A, B, and C, with the emphasis on the journeys in between Points A, B, and C, and making them as meticulous and memorable as possible. If 1917 was a plot movie, chances are that the film would get by as just an entertaining war picture with some stand-out technical features. Instead, Sam Mendes takes us right into the trenches and asks us, "What was it like, being one of those soldiers, trying to survive among all the blood, sweat, and tears that war inevitably brings?" The movie's heart and soul lies in the hands of its two main soldiers, so their eyes and ears are going to be our tour guides. The one thing they're not going to be able to do is warn us of is if something gruesome or tragic is about to happen, because, well, what kind of war experience would we be getting then?
- The main thing to know going into 1917 is its primary technical decision: shoot the film as one long, continuous shot. Now, it's not entirely accurate to say the film is indeed one, long continuous shot. There is a moment midway through the film when a character passes out where the continuous shot cuts to black. Seconds later, a different shot starts up at a different angle, so the movie is really two continuous shots. Regardless, this is a praiseworthy decision by Roger Deakins, because such lengthy takes help better immerse us into the setting and what the likes of Schofield and Blake are seeing and thinking as they traverse through enemy territory. The cinematography presents the likes of no man's land, a destroyed town, and the British trenches like traps that our characters are trying to escape from, not visual marvels that could enhance a blood-soaked battle. Schofield and Blake are almost seeing everything from a first-person point of view, you know, those views you get in Xbox games like Call of Duty or Destiny. A German soldier, a plane crash, or some kind of explosion: they all feel closer and more intimidating, and the experience is that much more realistic. Deakins never allows a take to stray too far from a character's line of sight, because doing so would rip us away from the experience.
- Thomas Newman is to Sam Mendes what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. Thomas Newman is also, in my opinion, the most underrated musical composer in modern film history. The fact that the guy has been nominated for fourteen Oscars without a win is almost blasphemous. In the case of 1917, Newman's score does it all: elevate the emotional scenes with softer and slower tunes, and provide an adrenaline-boost to the more action-oriented scenes. What's more, Newman allows his score to never impede on the experience that Mendes and Deakins try to create, because that might not go over too well if watching British soldiers panic in the trenches got drowned out by string instruments and percussion, desperately trying to get your blood pumping. The score is prominent, but enough "in the background" that it never serves as a distraction.
- I don't want to be too critical of the lack of plot, but the fact of the matter is that 1917's bare bones plot makes the film ring a little hollow, at times forcing Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns to generate filler material. Schofield and Blake have a great deal of "walking and talking", but some of their conversations don't really serve as character development, only as small talk that acts as padding until they reach a spot where something of interest can take place. Then there are other scenes that are stretched as far as possible, even to the point that it doesn't feel like someone's real-world war story. A bunch of soldiers gather together to hear someone sing a song, and no, it's not the final 30-45 seconds of the song; it's the whole gosh darn thing. There's also another scene where a truck gets stuck in mud, and all the soldiers have to get out to push it loose. I suppose you could say this is a "bonding" moment, but considering that nearly all the soldiers pushing the truck are never seen again afterwards, then I'm not sure "bonding time" is the right way to describe this scene. It's one thing to be realistic, but you also have to separate realistic from borderline pointless, and that's where 1917 struggles at times.
Even with some padding, 1917 is an impressively immersive experience, throwing you right into the heart of the World War I trenches and not letting you out until the end credits roll. Roger Deakins' terrific cinematography is one of 2019's most impressive technical achievements, and Thomas Newman is as reliable as ever with another knocked-it-out-of-the-park musical score. Along with great direction from Sam Mendes and top-notch acting from a talented cast, 1917 is the full package, and the best war film to get a wide release since 2016's Hacksaw Ridge. I eagerly await to see what the film may get at the Academy Awards. Maybe finally this will be the year Thomas Newman gets that elusive Oscar victory.
Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is directed, co-written, and co-produced by J.J Abrams. Multiple actors return to reprise their roles from the previous films: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Billy Dee Williams, and Ian McDiarmid. Newcomers to the cast include Naomi Ackie, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong'o, Keri Russell, and Joonas Suotamo.
It is rather depressing to see the level of disarray that the Star Wars franchise has fallen into in the years since Disney bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas back in 2012. At least for the first couple years, it didn't seem like there was anything dysfunctional about Star Wars now being Disney's property; The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office gold, and both critics and audiences seemed to be on board with the direction Disney was taking the franchise. Then came The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story. The Last Jedi, while garnering strong reviews and favorable box office results, sent the Star Wars fanbase into an almost total state of chaos, in which fans decried Disney for ruining their childhood heroes and tampering with all the supposed "rules" about The Force and how the Star Wars galaxy operates. Solo, meanwhile, was the first legitimate box office bomb for the franchise: a way for fans to give Disney the middle finger for The Last Jedi. So as you can imagine, excitement was at an all-time low when The Rise of Skywalker was announced, and given the less-than-stellar reviews from critics and audiences, I think it is perfectly reasonable to now question the future of the Star Wars franchise (if people hadn't started doing so already after The Last Jedi and Solo).
One word that perfectly summarizes The Rise of Skywalker is underwhelming. Disappointing might be the better word, because 2019 has seemed to be the year of disappointment for almost anything and everything pop culture not directly tied to Marvel. The absolute last thing a Star Wars film should be though is underwhelming, because these are supposed to be the ultimate fun time at the movies: watching heroes go on an epic space adventure, exploring wonderful new worlds and vanquishing the dark forces of the universe. No one can deny the entertainment value of the original trilogy, and while the prequels are heavily problematic, they at least show flashes of energy and imagination here and there. The prequels also offer the amusement of watching pure ineptitude when it comes to acting and dialogue. As for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, there is certainly entertainment to be had in both films, but let's not sit here and pretend that both films are not doing a whole lot of nudge-nudge, wink-wink fan service. Fan service, meanwhile, is rampant in The Rise of Skywalker, so much so that J.J Abrams doesn't care one iota for imagination, originality, or even simple spectacle. Almost nothing about the film is proactive: the plot, the characters, the direction. Everything feels reactive, as if Disney was so startled by the backlash generated by The Last Jedi and Solo, that their mindset was to treat Episode IX as an apology letter to fans and not the proper finale to this sequel trilogy.
The opening title crawl starts out with the words, "The dead speak!" It turns out that Emperor Palpatine (McDiarmid), almost out of pure screenwriting desperation, is still alive. He sends out a galaxy-wide broadcast announcing his return, drawing the presence of Kylo Ren (Driver). Palpatine reveals his plan to unleash a giant armada of Star Destroyers, each equipped with a planet-destroying weapon. Palpatine also tasks Ren with finding and killing Rey (Ridley), who is still training to be a Jedi. You know the rest: Rey and friends must find Palpatine and stop his dastardly plans once and for all.
This plot is as frustrating as it is tiresome. The bit I left out concerns Rey and her friends going on a treasure hunt, but you don't need me to fill in the blanks: Rey and co. must meet X, Y, and Z people and acquire Shiny Objects 1 and 2 in order to find where the bad guy is located. By the way, J.J. Abrams must think the Death Star is the coolest fictional weapon ever devised if he not once, but twice made it the focal point of the villain's scheme. Snoke and Kylo Ren worked to create what I always called the Death Star+ in The Force Awakens, and here, Abrams just takes the same powers of the Death Star and multiplies it across an armada of ships. Bringing back the Emperor, meanwhile, is an ill-conceived attempt at nostalgia and my biggest beef with the movie. To start with, Abrams completely neglects to explain how Palpatine can survive being thrown down a miles-deep reactor shaft, so good luck re-watching Return of the Jedi and not feel as if Disney violated one of the most grandiose moments of the original trilogy. I'm expunging material from my low points, so more on The Emperor's return in a bit.
- So what can I say about The Rise of Skywalker that qualifies as nice? Well, the best I have is that all the actors are giving it their best efforts, despite what little the screenplay has to offer in terms of characterization and memorable dialogue. Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and anyone else that has some kind of relevant role in the film are all giving it 100% and trying to act like they care for the sequel trilogy to end on a high note. I have to specifically point out poor John Boyega, who truly does everything in his power to keep his character Finn afloat, despite the fact that the character's arc was basically complete by the end of The Force Awakens, and thus, had little to no purpose for being in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Sykwalker. It's almost sad that the only interest the screenplay even remotely has in Finn is having him find the right time to tell Rey some sort of secret he's been keeping from her. The previous films would suggest this "secret" is just that Finn loves Rey and wants to be with her, but romance is something these newer Star Wars films do not care much for. So yeah, this one and only high point boils down to just, everyone is trying. Super deep, I know.
- I'll jump back into my gripes about the plot/screenplay shortly, but one low point that kind of surprised me was the film's action: perhaps the most vanilla of any Star Wars film ever. Any shootout scene, space dogfight, speeder bike chase, or even any lightsaber duel, all of it is just run-of-the-mill action that was done earlier and more inspired in previous Star Wars films, so watching the action is a lot of, "Been there, done that." There are no brand new space creatures, no new high-tech weapons, and no new battle layouts that you'd want to play for yourself in a new Star Wars video game. Remember how engrossing it was, watching the Rebels try to take down the Death Star at the end of A New Hope? You know what followed that awesome sequence in The Empire Strikes Back? Arguably the coolest battle sequence in all of Star Wars: the battle between the Rebels and the stop-motion animated Imperial Walkers on the snowy planet Hoth. Where is the creativity? Where is the inspiration to try something new and offer us a dose of action like we've never experienced before in a Star Wars film? The action in The Rise of Skywalker is so bland, that it never becomes something you look forward to. We can only watch the Millenium Falcon run away so many times from Imperial spaceships before we start yawning and demand for something else to show up on screen. In a galaxy full of endless possibilities, it's amazing how un-creative and lackluster that someone (Disney) can make it out to be.
- If I already said it once, then I'll say it again: this plot is so underwhelming and chock full of fan service, that it doesn't feel like something J.J.Abrams and Disney had in mind when Disney originally conceived this sequel trilogy. More so, The Rise of Skywalker is Disney's reaction to the backlash of The Last Jedi, and in hopes of getting back into the fans' good graces, they pump the film full of nostalgia and fan service, almost none of which works. The most egregious of The Rise of Skywalker's fan service crimes is the return of Palpatine, mostly because his return completely undermines the story of the earlier films, specifically that of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. If Rey was to one day confront Palpatine, then how are we supposed to feel about Anakin Skywalker's storyline and his transformation into Darth Vader? How are we able to not feel differently about the way Vader's story ends, knowing that Episode IX brings the Emperor back? As for other fan service, Billy Dee Williams comes back to play an elderly Lando Calrissian, you know, because he was in the original trilogy? Luke and Leia are also in the movie, although their endings are more about helping to bring closure to the some of the newer characters, which feels like a bit of a disservice to them and what they went through originally. It's so much for the film to try and wrap up over the course of 142 minutes, and the plot being so low-stakes doesn't help matters at all. Characters just go over here, then go over there, meet this person, then meet that person, and occasionally there will be some blaster shots and maybe even a lightsaber or two. The grand finale of a nine episode saga should not be this uninspired and discombobulated.
With the previous two trilogies, you can watch their respective finales, getting a sense of the stories they were trying to tell over a three episode span. Episodes I-III told the story of the Clone Wars and how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side. Episodes IV-VI depicted the war between The Galactic Empire and the Rebels, and how Luke Skywalker learned to use the Force and learn the ways of the Jedi. This is where I am especially troubled about Episodes VII-IX. What was the story they were trying to tell over this three episode span? A war breaks out between The First Order and Resistance, while scavenger Rey discovers she has the ability to use the Force and learn the ways of the Jedi? That sounds a lot like the summary of Episodes IV-VI, if you ask me. If this whole sequel trilogy was just one long nostalgia ride for Disney, then that's one of the most pathetic, albeit unsurprising, things I've seen from the film/entertainment industry in years. Star Wars is one of, if not, the most popular media franchise in the world, and instead of expanding upon the endless goldmine of opportunities that George Lucas had created prior to selling the franchise rights, Disney gave in to their laziest desires and created a new trilogy that went through nearly all the same beats of the original films. I had quite a few nice things to say about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but now, after seeing The Rise of Skywalker and thinking over everything that happened in these last three episodes, I am not so sure how fond of those films I am here at the end of 2019.
The Rise of Skywalker is extremely underwhelming and sends out this Star Wars sequel trilogy with a whimper. The complete lack of originality, a screenplay that screams of desperation, toothless action, and an abundance of fan service make this not only the worst film of this sequel trilogy, but one of the worst episodes of the entire Star Wars saga. All the actors are giving it their best efforts, but none of them can save this film from all its shortcomings. The Rise of Skywalker is not quite Attack of the Clones bad, but boy does it flirt with going down into that circle of hell at times. I don't care how successful The Mandalorian is turning out on Disney+ at the moment. The future of the Star Wars franchise has never looked more bleak, and now I feel a tad foolish for ripping the current Star Wars fan-base as toxic and an atrocity to the franchise. Maybe it still is, but if The Rise of Skywalker is the best Disney can come up with nowadays, then there may be more than just a fanbase that is toxic about Star Wars.
Recommend? I suppose if you've seen the previous eight episodes, you'll feel obligated to see this one. If not, avoid until it comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Knives Out is directed, written, and produced by Rian Johnson and stars an ensemble cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer.
It is worth mentioning that I am something of a sucker for a good ol' fashioned mystery: whether in print or audio-visual form. I've always been fascinated by the structure of a mystery-based story, largely because the payoff of when a (good) mystery is solved is one of the most satisfying feelings I've felt while reading a novel or watching a film. So when a juicy, all-star whodunit like Knives Out rolls around, you can bet your ass I'll be there to see it. The first thing that comes to mind when looking at Knives Out is questioning if the movie is essentially a modernized and more straightforward version of Clue. The title should be an indication that we won't be dealing with candlesticks, lead pipes, and wrenches, although they'll certainly still be a lot of deciphering of who was where and doing what at the time of the murder. Here's the thing: we don't want Knives Out to be a revival of Clue, because we've already seen that song and dance, and it isn't as fun watching it the second time around. What we do want is for Knives Out to be in the spirit of Clue: bouncy, unpredictable, and never taking itself too seriously. Being in the spirit of Clue is something Knives Out excels at, but the best part is, that's only the icing on what is a delicious cake of a movie.
Rian Johnson has been a bit of a notorious figure among movie-goers the past two years; The Last Jedi brought about the wrath of the Star Wars fanbase, and with the backlash came slamming remarks by fans about how Johnson "ruined" Star Wars and forever tarnished the overarching saga. Whatever your thoughts on The Last Jedi (this guy here ended up liking it by a lot), there is far more evidence out there that Rian Johnson is a stellar director and writer, and Knives Out, seeing its rave reviews and reasonable box office success I think is only going to quiet his critics further. There are certain movies you can watch and can say to yourself, "Yep, that's a Steven Spielberg film" or, "Yep, I've seen all those moments before. I am watching a Michael Bay film." So while I don't think Rian Johnson has developed that sort of intangible presence yet with his films, what I can say with certainty is this: Johnson's enthusiasm for making a film like Knives Out leaps off the screen and is highly contagious. This is a guy that always wanted to make a murder mystery and is psyched that his lifelong dream has finally come true. The last thing he cares about with Knives Out is what a bunch of angry Star Wars fans have to say about him.
The movie opens at the house of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Plummer). Housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) goes upstairs one morning and finds Harlan dead, his throat being slit. The police bring several members of Harlan's family for questioning: his eldest daughter Linda Drysdale (Curtis), his youngest son Walt (Shannon), his grandson Hugh Drysdale (Evans), son-in-law and Linda's husband Richard Drysdale (Johnson), and widow of deceased son Neil, Joni (Colette). Also involved is Harlan's nurse, Marta Cabrera (de Armas). Leading the investigation is the eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig), who learns piece by piece that Harlan had a falling out with each family member being questioned. A dead body and multiple suspects. Yep, it's indeed a whodunit.
For about a third of the way through, Knives Out is a whodunit, until Rian Johnson decides to turn his whodunit completely inside out and morph it into something else altogether. It's extremely difficult to discuss what I mean without giving direct spoilers, so bear with me if I sound rather vague. In a traditional whodunit, we have multiple suspects from multiple backgrounds; the fun is in learning about the lives of each suspect, what their motivations are, and how they came to know the person who gets murdered. Then comes the part where we have to take a step back and look closer at our interlinked web and find out which person's story doesn't mesh well with the others. Whoever's story doesn't add up is almost always the one who is guilty. Knives Out does about the first third of this process, and then it veers off course onto a stray dirt road that no one saw initially. Rian Johnson is not trying to be clever for the sake of being clever, nor is he trying to break new ground in the mystery genre. What it is is Johnson taking a story dressed up as a whodunit and using it to make a neat commentary on who the characters are representing.
- The best thing of all about Knives Out is just how damn fun it is: a mystery comprised of meaty, thought-provoking details, an all-star cast, and a script that allows said all-star cast to exchange caustic and hilarious dialogue with one another. Rian Johnson takes the whodunit structure and plays around with it for almost the entirety of the film's 130-ish minutes, and this playful state of mind permeates throughout the entire cast, all of whom are having as much fun as the their director is. Daniel Craig soaks up every little bit of eccentricity that the script displays of Blanc, because a goofy, offbeat family requires a goofy, offbeat detective. The Thrombeys, meanwhile, are prime examples of snobby rich folks who believe themselves to be on a higher plane than everyone else. Every Thrombey member wholeheartedly believes they will get a piece of Harlan's fortune, because the rich always get richer. The reason the humor in the movie works so well is because the Thrombey family suspects are all vying for control, and they all look like total buffoons while doing it. There's nothing to distinguish these people; it's the same stuck-up personality multiplied several times. Watching the Thrombeys clash is like watching a bunch of lemmings race to see who can be the first one to jump off the cliff; they're all goners when it's all said and done. The Thrombeys are a great example of why watching people trying to be serious and failing will always be funnier than watching people try to be funny. The rich folks yell, scream, and rip each other to shreds, and we're laughing our heads off every step of the way.
- Much to Rian Johnson's credit, Knives Out presents a thoughtfully put together murder mystery, layered with much more than just a dead body, a weapon, and a bunch of suspects who are connected to the now deceased person. I will reveal details about the murder which I think borders on minor spoilers, but nothing that I think would make you turn away from this review now and come back after watching the movie. Anyway, we first see that Harlan has his throat slit, but it's quickly revealed that Harlan apparently committed suicide, which complicates the question of if he was really murdered. Furthermore, Marta was responsible for giving Harlan pain medicine every night, and sure enough, the medicine plays a part in Harlan's death as well. This is a mystery that ends up being about much more than just uncovering events of the not too distant past, events that Rian Johnson is more than happy to provide us much earlier than expected. What happens is that Blanc and the other detectives have to uncover the clues about Harlan's death, while also keeping up with the events of the present, specifically the matter of who gets Harlan's fortune. The characters are in a tug of war with both the past and present, and it presents a series of challenges that never allows the film to become totally stagnant.
- Actually, to say the film is never stagnant would be a bit of a betrayal of my own thoughts towards the movie, because I do think the movie is a bit slow in the beginning. Once it gets going though, it moves gracefully. The slow beginning isn't the biggest issue with the movie, though. The biggest issue in Knives Out is what it does with the character of Marta Cabrera, specifically with her motivations and general thought process throughout the film. Marta goes back and forth between being an innocent bystander and a potential suspect, and it's never clear (at least, not until the very end) as to what she hopes to get out of this murder investigation, and how she feels towards those around her. Again, it's extremely difficult for me to discuss this point without sounding vague, so bear with me as I try to stick to my motto of never giving major spoilers. Marta is understandably horrified when she learns of Harlan's murder, and so she cooperates with Blanc and the police. Later on however, Marta gets an opportunity in which she sheds her innocent skin and starts to act in opposition to Blanc and the police. Then when more details of the murder are revealed, Marta goes back to being the innocent party that she was initially. It's incredibly erratic behavior for a character that has no reason to be erratic; her actions and decisions end up hindering the flow of the story. Luckily, Rian Johnson still ends up where he wants to when all is said and done, but the journey getting there is rather bumpy. If this behavior was with one of the Trombey characters, I probably wouldn't give it much thought, but because Marta quickly develops into one of the movie's main characters, it's impossible to ignore.
So while Knives Out is advertised as a Rian Johnson whodunit, the truth is that it's a Rian Johnson whodunit that takes the whodunit mystery formula and turns it completely upside down. We have much more than a dead body, multiple suspects, and a cheeky detective. We have extra character motivations, more depth, and a final result that ends up saying something quite effective about the characters and their backgrounds. Rian Johnson once again proves his directing and writing talents with Knives Out: a razor sharp murder mystery that is as fun as it intelligent. While the movie is slow in the beginning and has some inconsistencies with one of its central characters, there is so much entertainment to be had watching an all-star cast play a bunch of snobby rich people who get their comeuppance. This was a movie Rian Johnson always wanted to make, and his childlike enthusiasm is prevalent in every frame. Nothing like watching people see one of their dreams come true.
Recommend? Yes. The movie is a ton of fun and definitely worth your time.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: