Monday, March 30, 2020

Onward: Heartfelt Family Film About Moving On

     Brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louie-Dreyfuss) after the father and husband respectively Wilden passed away from illness many years ago. Upon his sixteenth birthday, Ian is given a present from his later father: a wizard staff along with the rare Phoenix gem and a spell to bring Wilden back to life for twenty four hours. A mishap in performing the spell results in the gem shattering. leaving only half of their father being reconstituted. Ian and Barley set off on a quest to find another Phoenix gem, leading the brothers down paths of peril, life lessons, and being reminded of what you have and how much you miss it when it's gone.

     The newest outing by Pixar, Onward gives us another heartfelt tale of family that doesn't shy away from the notion that, even when we love them, sometimes family can be the biggest pain in the ass. But the latter doesn't always disqualify the former. It's especially tough when you've lost a family member to disease or circumstances far beyond anyone's control. Losing a family member or someone you loved enough to spend the rest of your life with is like losing a part of yourself. Time may heal the wound, but you never really forget. Even when the weight of the loss slowly lifts with each passing day, it feels like you'll carry it, in some part, with you forever. But life goes on, the world moves ever forward.

     Fantasy creatures inhabiting modern times is hardly unbroken ground (see Bright, The Dresden Files, Supernatural, Buffy The Vampire Slayer etc;), Onward seems to take a different approach. In most contemporary fantasy, the fantastic and the modern are more or less folded into each other, like a deck of playing cards. The world of this film seems to have a different history, or at least more of an alternate version. I suppose if one were to take a fine-toothed comb, one could pick apart how technology shouldn't exist so similarly to our own, but the movie doesn't really bring it up and frankly, it isn't important to the bulk of the story. It's not about the world itself, though it is worth exploring on its own. But it rightly focuses on Ian and Barley's journey, brotherhood and respective relationships with their father.

     Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are perfectly cast as Barley and Ian Lightfoot respectively. Tom portrays Ian's nerdy, nebbish awkwardness and desire to be more confident with little to no effort. Barley seems like a role made for Pratt, who first charmed audiences as Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation. Though, in all honesty, ten years ago, Jack Black and Michael Cera would've turned in terrific portrayals of Barley and Ian respectively, as well.

     The premise to this movie spoke to me in a very personal way. In late 2003, my father died of cancer and, to be honest, it still affects me to this day. Not a day goes by that I don't miss him, even after sixteen years. Eventually you do move on, you do live your life. Losing a family member to disease is the kind of pain that changes forever those who have been left behind. Parents remarry, families are altered, but the love for those we lose never goes away. The family dynamic in Onward is heavily relatable in that way. It does go into something of a cliche, especially when it comes to the boys's relationship with Colt Bronco, who is dating Barley and Ian's mother Laurel (played by Julia Louis Dreyfuss).

     Speaking of cliches, the structure and pacing of this film does feel somewhat recycled from just about every road trip/buddy movie you've seen before. Our heroes get sidetracked for a gas run and encounter a biker gang (of pixies). Circumstances force a rift between the brothers, particularly Barley's perception as a screw-up and manchild. It's another coming of age story for a boy learning to become a young man. It is effectively told and enjoyable, but as far as Pixar films go, it's not anything revolutionary or new.

     Special mention should be given to Octavia Spencer's Manticore Corey. Her character arc in the story can serve as something of a microcosm of what the audience should take away from this film. She starts out going through the motions as the owner of a kids-themed tavern based on her exploits. Modern life and responsibilities had taken their toll on her fighting spirit. Through a brief encounter with the young elf men, she realizes what she has become. Corey and Laurel have a fun but brief adventure together on the road trying to help Barley and Ian from the disastrous consequences of their quest. While Corey experiences what some may call a mid-life crisis and possibly isn't as strong as she used to be, she still manages to rekindle the fire and passion for life that drove her in ages gone by.

     In the end Onward is about how we progress in life, but never forgetting the magic that's within us and others. Life goes on, but we can't let that get us down. We can't let an ever-changing world snuff out the heart's fire that burns within us. While we can't ignore the responsibilities and trappings of modern living, they also aren't what we're meant to live for. We as people are meant to do wondrous things and if we can just harness the spark and speak from our hearts, maybe we can make magic live on in some form of our lives.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sonic: The Hedgehog: A Fun Fantasy Film For Fans of Family-Friendly Fare

     Stranded on Earth after losing his protector and mother figure, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz), an anthropomorphic hedgehog raises himself in the forests of Green Hills, Montana. He spends the next few years scavenging for food and stalking local sheriff Tom (James Marsden) and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). His loneliness and isolation cause him to lash out, causing a power surge that draws the attention of the U.S. Government, in particular the brilliant but demented mind of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). While trying to use one of his magic rings to escape Earth, Sonic is shot with a tranquilizer dart by Tom, accidentally causing the rings to land on a skyscraper in San Francisco. With Tom's reluctant help, Sonic has to find a way to evade the mad scientist and retrieve his one-way ticket to safety.

     It all started last year with the release of a trailer and the misguided executive decision to show the public a version of Sonic The Hedgehog that looked nightmarish, somewhat realistic and not all that great. While my reaction wasn't as over-the-top as others was, it was universally agreed upon that it could have been better. After months of redesigning, the new look for Sonic was a marked improvement and the artists behind it deserve all the credit in the world.

     With everything being said about the redesign, it was clear that any changes would be cosmetic. The film, as a whole, would be largely left alone. In which case, everything else we saw from the trailers was what we would get. The premise of "normal live-action human interacts with cartoon/CG animal for wacky hijinks/road trip" movies is not exactly breaking new ground in terms of subgenres. See Yogi Bear, the Alvin and The Chipmunks movies, Hop (which also stars James Marsden) and The Smurfs for the more notable examples. However, even if something appears to be yet another in a long line of formulaic, plot-by-numbers movies, sometimes a film can surprise you by being better than you thought. Not spectacular by any means, but not having you leave the theater wanting to punch actual hedgehogs.

     It's all been done before, and it's certainly true here. Road trip movies are a dime a dozen, Live-action/animated mashups are plentiful and family friendly stories about what makes a friend or family or finding a true home. The key to a quality movie-going experience, at least in my opinion, is in how the movie engages with you, if it does at all. While movies like Woody Woodpecker, Yogi Bear, and Alvin and The Chipmunks didn't really do it for me, there's a charm to Sonic the Hedgehog that makes it at least an enjoyable romp for me. Even if they borrow scenes from X-Men when Sonic seemingly slows down time to pull pranks or save Tom from either a bar fight or Robotnik's onslaught.

     Ben Schwartz nails the childlike energy and immature nature of Sonic. He's practically raised himself on Flash comic books, pop culture osmosis, and hiding in the shadows. It's not unlike an introvert wanting to be part of a crowd or community, but always feeling like an outsider. It's different in Sonic's case, as he was instructed by his mother figure to always remain hidden. While he does like to play the occasional prank, Sonic enjoys the spotlight and is naturally outgoing, leading to his mounting frustration.

     Jim Carrey's Dr. Robotnik is also full of fun, entertaining manic energy. When I saw Carrey's antics, it made me feel young again while he was playing The Mask or Ace Ventura. He fully commits to the insanity of the character, especially at the end. In contrast to Sonic, he is someone who likes to be alone with his machines and finds people annoying, stupid and tedious. Seeing his efforts stymied by those he deems inferior to himself enrages Robotnik. Even when James Marsden's Tom gives us a cliched, "Sonic is more human than you" type speech about friendship, it simply doesn't register to the rabid robot creator. He cannot grasp the need or desire for companionship.

      James Marsden's Sheriff Tom spends the movie dreaming of being a San Francisco cop and being a hero. He dreams of leaving behind Green Hills and getting calls to do seemingly menial work for its townspeople. With Sonic being thrust in his life, he learns the typical lesson one does in these situations about where one's home truly lies. A more cynical mind will think that the message of the film is "have no ambitions beyond your stations" but honestly, the character suffers mainly from being bored with his career and thinking he needs a change. And, as in life, change comes from an unexpected source.

     Sonic The Hedgehog is a fun, entertaining way to kill ninety minutes, especially if you happen to have kids or are a fan of the character. While it's true, the story is ground that has been tread before many, many times, it still can be an enjoyable ride, a lot like when you go through Green Hills Zone's first level. It feels familiar, but it's still a good time from beginning to end.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Birds Of Prey And The Groin-Kicking Of The Patriarchy

     After a horrible break-up with the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is on her own. After blowing up Ace Chemicals as a symbolic middle finger to her former puddin', the Gotham underworld are now after her head to pay her back for past grievances. One of those is the sadistic crime boss Roman "Black Mask" Sionis (Ewan MacGregor). Caught in the middle are Detective Rene Montoya (Rosie Perez), a lounge-singer/martial arts badass Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell, assassin Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). As all these paths converge, wacky hijinks, brutal bone-snapping battles and more outrageous splashes of color than a crayon box in a wood chipper ensue.

     I didn't like Suicide Squad. It looked like try-hard, disjointed, horribly edited, "look-at-us-we're-so-punk-but-in-a-safe-marketable-way" garbage. Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Jay Hernandez are three of the only good parts about it, but it still didn't do it for me. This time around, however, I'm glad to see a movie that is a good kind of crazy, wild, and in-your-face with its themes and aesthetic. It felt like the movie that Suicide Squad tried to be but couldn't quite nail down because it was so busy trying to cram ten different origins into one movie. While one could make the argument that the pacing of events may appear jumbled, but actually does its job of fleshing out the characters and makes sense given that the point-of-view of the overall narration is provided by Harley Quinn.

     Birds Of Prey is something of a punk feminist manifesto without being either subtle or explicit about it, and I don't say that as a bad thing. These are awesome, strong, capable women who have ambition, drive and tenacity. Such traits are evident, even to the male figures in this film. But it's shown, again and again, they only accept a woman's strength so long as it benefits their goals. There's a very pointed scene with Jurnee Smollet-Bell singing "This Is A Man's World" in a slow minor-key number while Harley stews in her post-break-up depression and Roman parades around like the cock of the walk. The power dynamics between men and women are at the heart of this story.

      Each main character deals with breaking the stifling and, in most cases, abusive control that men or male dominated fields exert over them. Renee Montoya tries getting Roman/Black Mask off the streets despite male cops stymieing her progress not just with the case, but her entire career. Helena Bertinelli/Huntress seeks bloody vengeance on the mobsters that murdered her family. Dinah Lance wants to be out from under the murderous controlling thumb of Black Mask, all the while keeping her head down but never really breaking from her good-hearted nature. Cassandra Cain hopes to escape abusive foster parents through pick-pocketing. Harley begins the struggle of being more than just "Joker's girl" and realizing she doesn't need him anymore.

     The fight choreography is fantastic, giving each character their own distinct style. Montoya brawls, Harley incorporates gymnastics and blunt objects, Canary and Huntress are martial arts masters though Huntress tends to also shoot and stab with crossbow bolts just as often. Their chemistry as a combative unit is, sadly, only given one scene to truly shine, but the climactic final battle is exciting, fun and worth the price of admission by itself. What also shines is the fact that they can push through pain, both mental, emotional, and physical. Getting thrown around and punched in the face doesn't slow them down in the slightest. They get right back up and start snapping (a LOT of) legs and kicking ass.

     While I can certainly understand the notion that this is, first and foremost, a Harley Quinn movie, it's not to say that none of the other characters aren't developed or have arcs to go through. Their chemistry as characters becomes apparent much too late in the film, but there's smatterings of it here and there when two characters would interact on occasion. I wish there could have been more with the entire team, but hopefully with a sequel (box office pending) that can be explored a bit further.

     I really dug the art direction and tone of this film. The color schemes were just right without being gaudy or over-the-top, but still dynamic enough that I wasn't watching a grey, drab, miserable mess.The editing knows when to be frenetic and when to slow down and let the action play out. The cinematography is excellent, one of the highlights being a slow, almost fetishistic look at the making of a breakfast sandwich.

     Finally, there's a villain you love to hate in Ewan MacGregor, who was having the time of his life as Black Mask. He chews the scenery with aplomb and gusto. While there were reports that the character of Roman Sionis was portrayed as gay, it isn't made explicit in the film. There are some intimate touching here and there with his right hand man Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina, which is about as close as it gets. It isn't a complaint so much as an observation, really. I also liked that they kept the fact that Renee Montoya is a lesbian by confirming her past relationship with a female District Attorney, as well as Harley's bisexuality in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it animation of college flames. One, in particular, bore a striking resemblance to one Pamela Isley a.k.a. Poison Ivy.

     I cannot recommend Birds Of Prey enough, it's fast paced, action-packed, with great characters to get attached to and root for. It's the kind of girl power film that isn't insincere, cheesy or hokey about it. It's a fun time to be had that'll put a fantabulous smile on your face. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Dolemite Is My Name And Perseverance Is My Game

     Rudy Ray Moore is a down-on-his-luck entertainer in Los Angeles in the 1970's. Record store clerk by day and club MC by night, Rudy tries everything he can to get into the entertainment business. Until one day he hears the lyrical, almost poetic musings of hobos and bums nearby. Of particular interest are limericks involving the name "Dolemite." He decides to create a character by the same name and immerses himself in a flamboyant, jive-talking, superstar on the rise. After making successful comedy records, Rudy decides to make his own movie featuring his popular creation as he chases his dreams of success and entertaining the people in a way that only he can.

     Getting into show business is a hellacious struggle. Even trying to be moderately successful in any entertainment field is like trying to climb a rainy mountainside with a two-ton boulder tied to your waist on a bungee cord. That's why seeing someone who could be pigeon-holed as "down and out" finally make good or make something of themselves can be inspiring to others in similar situations. Here you have Rudy, who's stuck working at what he himself calls a "temporary day job," struggling for a way to make people laugh and have a good time and become successful in the process.

     Eddie Murphy, with this one role, has come back to peak form not just as a comedian, but as an actor as well. His (in my staunch opinion) Oscar-worthy performance carries the movie on its shoulders almost effortlessly. If anyone else had been in the role, I would dare to say it might not have had as much impact and resonance. As some may know, Murphy himself was going through a tough time in Hollywood, with failed movie after failed movie and his stock plummeting. But like with Rudy Ray Moore, sometimes you just need that one shot to really get things going and working in your favor.

      Dolemite Is My Name shows the highs and lows of perseverance. With every success Rudy faces, he's hit with a setback. He tries to work a longer set for his MC position but the club manager sternly refuses. He then finds a way to bring the house down with the creation of Dolemite. Rudy decides to make a movie but finds that he is woefully out of his depth as a filmmaker and financier. He then hustles to get the money to pay the cast and crew. One by one, distributors refuse to play his movie, until he takes a chance at playing Dolemite at a theater owned by a relative of a radio host who wanted to know if the movie was ever coming out. While Rudy does feel the frustration almost to the point of giving up, something or someone prompts him back on point so he can complete his goals.

      While watching the film, I couldn't help but think of an early creative inspiration of mine, Adaptation, with Nic Cage as a struggling screenwriter trying to make a compelling story of a reporter's investigation of a particularly rare orchid. It showcased the internal battle to make a story about what amounted to little more than a book report engaging to an audience. Self-loathing and self-doubt crept in at every opportunity, but despite all of it, Cage's character still pushed through, even when his life was on the line. It shows the complete war of imaginative attrition that creative people can and often do go through when making art, especially for a living.

     It's a rocky and tumultuous road to make a living doing something you love. Even achieving moderate success can seem herculean in time and effort put in. The saying goes, "Do what you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." But we all know that isn't true. Doing what we love takes work because love takes work. If it's a passion project, or in a relationship, or even getting through the day. It takes work and effort. Some might reply, "But they mean it won't feel like work." But the thing is, they're wrong there, too. Sometimes the things you love will exhaust you, frustrate you, grate on you, irritate you, maybe even drive you mad. But none of that truly diminishes that love. We keep going because we believe the reward will be worth it. And sometimes it is, and sometimes, it falters and ultimately fails. But without the will to try and push forward, we will never really, truly know what we're capable of.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker: Oh, boy...

(Warning: In order for me to give this my full and complete opinion, I'm afraid I must spoil the events of the movie. Go watch the film and form your own opinions)

Continuing her training in the ways of The Force with Leia (Carrie Fisher), Rey (Daisy Ridley) joins Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Issacs) in trying to find a way to the Sith planet of Exagol, where sits a somehow still-alive Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has conscripted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) into doing his bidding by searching for and killing Rey, offering up a new fleet of planet-destroying ships as reward.

     If this were a video, this would be the part where I let out a long, painful, weary sigh. I'd likely have my head in my hands and just let out one more deep, exhalation of frustration before going into my thoughts on this movie. I felt I had to go to see this movie twice in order to make sure I had all my ducks in a row when it came to presenting my arguments for how I feel the way I do about this movie. I honestly don't think I'll ever really be ready, but to hell with it. Here goes nothing.

     Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker is an absolute mess. Imagine leaving a clean room behind, something someone could take and make good use of. You leave a pristine work of art behind, even if it may not be to everyone's liking. And the previous tenant comes back and decides to party like an old 80's rock band on its farewell tour. Full of sound and nostalgia that, while pretty to look at at times, leaves behind a disarrayed curtain call. You walk in and find the janitorial equivalent of a bomb going off. Scattered food all over the floor. An overturned couch. Underpants  hanging on the lampshade. Paper plates full of what you hope are Spaghetti-O's smeared all over the walls and television set. 

     Originally, I didn't want to think this movie had used The Last Jedi as an outhouse when it came to its themes on "anyone can be a hero" and "you are not beholden to your lineage." But when you have Kylo Ren yammering about how Rey is Palpatine's granddaughter and having "his power," the case is tough to argue against. I won't say it inflamed my passions like it has many across the internet, but I understand the reasoning behind many detractor's gripes. JJ Abrams had a toy box full of good, working, perfectly fine characters to use and make a great story out of. He seemed content to just bring along a broken, busted old toy and make everything all about that. This is the biggest missed opportunity in franchise history. When you have the supposed finale of a forty-year-long story, you need to stick the landing. You need your A-game. Saying that this movie's writers brought their Z-game would be too generous.

     I could sit here and add to the pile of nitpicks like "Who the hell would purposefully have a child with Palpatine" or "How did he build hundreds of thousands of ships manned by, one assumes, millions of people on one single planet over three decades" or even "When did Poe have time to be a Spice Runner?" Or go into the hackneyed tragic backstory of Rey's parents being killed by a Palpatine henchman after they sold her into slavery in secret (even if it was to protect her from the power-mad fuck, it's still wrong) because when it comes to Disney and dead parental units, this is the way. Being related to one of the galaxy's most vile and villainous mass murderers to ever breathe air is enough of a gut-punch, but learning your parents, who apparently weren't drunks according to the briefest of flashbacks, sold you into slavery only to be killed for hiding you in the first place?

     Hey, future filmmakers! Want to make your two hour epic move by quickly? Edit the pacing of the story like a rabbit on meth! Sweet Buddha in a Buick, this movie moves way too fast. Literally lightspeed skipping from one scene to the next with very little time to breathe before we can even settle into the Macguffin hunt for little dark triangles that point the way to Exagol where Palpatine is hiding out, chilling with his massive army of  planet-killing Star Destroyers, just announcing to everyone that he's back like a Twitch streamer that no one liked who had to take a break due to "personal reasons."

     Before I go further, I want to talk about the things that I DID like about this movie because they do exist and I want to give credit where it's due. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issacs have great chemistry together. I'm truly saddened it took two movies in a trilogy to finally get more Rey/Poe interactions. They argue like they're best friends or, if one was so inclined, a polyamorous relationship. I'd be fine with either scenario, really. The action scenes were well filmed, choreographed and exciting to look at. Star Wars does love its gigantic space battles that are actually decided by individual actions of space sorcerers instead of actual strategic planning. Babu Freek was a funny little marketable character to watch.

     It was nice to see Billy Dee Williams return as Lando Calrissian and watching him in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon at the climax. It was also nice to see Mark Hamill as Luke in a nice cameo role for one scene as Rey tries to exile herself for all of five minutes. And I always enjoy seeing Carrie Fisher onscreen. Due to her untimely demise in 2016, it's a miracle we got as much of her as we did in this film.

     I liked the idea of other Stormtroopers leaving and defecting from The First Order to make their own settlement and help The Resistance. I wish they did more with that premise. Janna, while an interesting character, is given not much else except being put by Finn's side, which Kelly Marie Tran's Rose could've easily been placed and done just as much. That being said, we need much more WOC representation in science fiction and pop culture in general so it's not that big of a deal. Maybe they'll do something with the new characters like Janna, Babu Freek and Zorii Bliss. Be a shame if this is the only installment we see them in, given so little time to flesh out their stories.

     Bringing back Palpatine and making him the end boss for the entire saga, especially given his demise at the end of Return of The Jedi, was the biggest mistake this film made. Especially when you make him Rey's grandfather. It robs Rey of her overcoming the feeling of being "no one from nothing." Even when it tries to go for the message of family not necessarily being blood, it stumbles and falls on its face into a row of tire spikes. The Peanut Butter Falcon did that theming a lot better. Also, making yet another old guy Kylo Ren's mentor, even going as far as hinting that Leia, through the force, influenced her son to turn back to the light just robs the character of any sense of agency and taints his attempted redemption arc, which is a whole other mess I don't have the energy to get into.

    Writing this has caused me headaches, stress, and no end to disappointment. I wanted to like this movie. I really tried to like this movie. But the more I thought about it, the more I looked back on it, the more I found it lacking. Even trying to justify things in-story felt hollow to me because the story itself was shattered by trying to put a square peg in a round hole. After this, if it isn't something new or having to do with the excellent Disney+ series The Mandalorian, I am washing my hands of this whole mess and moving on to trying to watch better movies.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

CATS: Peanut Butter And Jellicles

Every year, the Jellicle cat tribe has what they call The Jellicle Ball. In it, Jellicle cats sing Jellicle songs to the Jellicle leader Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) and she decides which Jellicle cat gets to Jellicle go to the HeavySide Layer Jellicle for a new Jellicle life. But Jellicle the wicked Macavity (Idris Elba) wants to make sure he is chosen, by Jellicle hook or Jellicle crook.

     Tired of hearing the word Jellicle yet? That's kind of how I felt after the first few minutes of CATS. I swear, if they made a drinking game of the number of times that that one word was spoken, the audience would be dead from alcohol poisoning before the finale. In terms of overexaggerated hyperbole when it comes to this film, that's about the best I've got for you. I didn't outright hate this film. I got over the supposed "uncanny valley" CGI humanization of the feline characters rather quickly. There seemed to be genuine effort and skill put into this production and all of the performers seemed to be giving it their all and having a blast doing so. There's just one simple problem. I just didn't care.

     I had never seen CATS before so I went into this movie hoping for, if not a good story, then something so-bad-it's-awesome in just how spectacularly it fails. Hey, the trailers made it look like it look like at least the latter, right? Well, what I came away with was a bunch of characters being introduced to me, having their personalities and traits sang to me and then oh, look at the time gotta hurry along to the next character and musical number and yes, they ALL get musical numbers. Some characters even get two!

      In terms of concepts, it's certainly unique and not without ambition, but in terms of making a solid narrative structure, it's found wanting. And this is with the film adding more structure into the story than the stage play has, as I've been told. The lack of a strong narrative made it difficult for me to get invested in these characters and their goals. It's not that I don't get it. I just didn't care about any of the characters. It's not that a story can't be found in this musical. It's that the production never seems all too interested in telling us about it. They're content to just speed through song after song like a Spotify playlist in the Speed Force.

     I've seen all of the hand-wringing. I've heard the over-dramatized ballyhooing. I've noticed the hype of this movie being likened unto peeling back the thin veil of this reality to simply glance at the totality of the dark underbelly of this universe and going mad from the revelation. To all of this, I simply say. This isn't that crazy. Is it an odd choice? Yes, but CATS is not a conventional musical production in a multitude of ways. It's basically Andrew Lloyd Webber putting music and dance numbers to T.S. Elliot poetry. It's one thing to not like the movie, and that's perfectly fine. But is it the worst movie of the year? Serenity would like a word with you.

     My friend Matt, who saw this with me, is a fan of the musical, having seen it back in San Francisco many years ago. He explained it thusly: "People don't go to see CATS for the story, they see it for the dancing and the music." And I will give credit where it's due, the dancing numbers and music are very well composed and performed. Francesca Hayward, a ballerina in the Royal Ballet at London's Convent Garden, is an amazing dancer with near-perfect body control and the ability to mimic cat-like movements. What little acting she did here won't light the world on fire, but not a whole lot of standard non-singing acting was given to anyone.

     Jennifer Hudson's rendition of "Memory" was the highlight of the movie. She brings power, emotion and depth to her vocals and for a brief moment, she seemed the most compelling character on-screen. Everyone else seemed like they were at least having a good time, especially Idris Elba's Macavity. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench do the best they can to class up the place while James Corden and Rebel Wilson are there to be James Corden and Rebel Wilson and if that's your thing, that's cool.

     I would like to note that, as of the writing of this article, I have not seen the new "update" version of CATS. I have no plans on seeing it, either. Mainly because it won't really effect or change my opinion on my enjoyment or lack thereof of this movie. Also, this kind of sets a dangerous precedent that studios can just rush out unfinished films and then "patch" them later so they can have folks pay to watch the same movie twice trying to play "Spot the effects change!" I'd say I sure hope that studios don't adopt the video game plague upon mankind that is "Crunch" (corporate practice that abuses computer-animation/game programmers to work almost 24/7 to rush projects to market before they're even finished or tested). But then it's corporate studios and if there's a way for them to make all of the money right now, workers well-being, either physical or mental, is no object.

     That all being beside the point, CATS is definitely an experience. Not one that engaged me particularly well, but I did find things to appreciate about it. The bombastic music and terrific dance numbers are as good as advertised, but I guess I was just hoping for more story meat on the bones of this Jellicle. If you have a chance to see it, do so with fresh eyes and perspective.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Jumanji: The Next Level In More Of The Same

Three years after their first adventure in the magical world of Jumanji, Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) have all reunited in their hometown of Brantford.Conspicuous by his absence is Spencer (Alex Wolff) who came home to spend the holidays with his mom and grandfather Eddie (Danny Devito). Eddie's former friend and business partner Milo (Danny Glover) comes by to reconcile but it rekindles a bitter disagreement. As Bethany, Fridge and Martha try to find Spencer, they realize that he has somehow returned to the world of Jumanji and go in after him. But, unbeknownst to them, Eddie and Milo have been brought along for the ride.

     I rewatched Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle  in preparation for this and to keep things fresh in my mind. It's a pretty fun, if basic, adventure/character piece that gets good performances out of its star-studded cast. (I could watch Karen Gillan kick-ass to "Baby I Love Your Way" all day everyday but that's beside the point).Jumanji: The Next Level is more of the same, which if you liked the first movie, will be a welcome treat.

     This time around, Dwayne Johnson gets to try out his impressionism skills as he spends the majority of the movie playing Danny Devito's character Eddie in the body of  Dr. Smoulder Bravestone. He affects a stereotypical Brooklyn stereotype accent and complains a bit, acting completely oblivious to the game world around him except for when it's time for him to jump into action. Kevin Hart returns to play Danny Glover's Milo, giving him a slower but deliberate cadence. After a while, it does become a bit grating, but it's likely by design since they do have an in-story method of switching the previous players to the original bodies and putting the newer players into new playable characters. After a while, it basically just becomes a game of "guess which character is playing which other character."

     That all being said, the film's humor is heavily reliant on the interactions between the characters as well as the elderly Eddie and Milo trying and failing to adjust to their new surroundings; So, much like most elderly people thrust into playing a video game. It helped to endear the characters and provide them with growth beyond their usual roles in reality. While the same is hinted at for a good portion of the running time, it's interesting that they chose to have the characters switch avatars into things supposedly more suited to them.

     Also, I know that characters tend to have arcs in these kinds of stories, but with Jumanji, both "Welcome To The Jungle" and "The Next Level" have an almost be an extreme form of therapy for many of the characters. Though in the case of both Alan Parrish and Alex Vreek (played here once again by Colin Hanks and Nick Jonas in reality and game respectively), it sets about it in the most traumatizing and psychologically brutal ways possible. But, and this occurred to me in the writing of this article, that the entire plot hinges on one of the main characters not being willing to talk to his friends. In fact, both Spencer and Eddie apparently have the familial trait of insecurity and grumpiness when it comes to their friends having grand life adventures or doing well in college.

     Much like the movie, aside from some fun interactions, as well as a brief backstory bit on Bravestone's parents stereotypical tragic origins (with Dwayne Johnson playing Bravestone's father), there isn't a whole lot to talk about with this movie. The themes are nakedly apparent as well as easily resolved once people actually stop to have an honest conversation. There's still fun to be had, but hopefully in the next installment (because there is sequel bait at the mid-credits point) will have something a little more substantial than just magical therapist with extremely loose ethics on boundaries.