Movie Review – Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018)
Written by Michael Jelenic & Aaron Horvath
Directed by Aaron Horvath & Peter Rida Michail

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The Teen Titans can’t get any respect from the superhero community. While Batman is on his fiftieth movie while everyone else, including the Challengers of the Unknown, are getting their own films. Robin realizes the team needs their archenemy which they quickly find in the form of Deathstroke. They seemingly foil Deathstroke who remains in the shadows with plans to get his revenge. Meanwhile, the Titans embark on series of hilarious vignettes (traveling through time and preventing heroes’ origins, participating in a motivational music video, and more). A rift grows between Robin and his teammates as his movie aspirations begin to push his comrades away.

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Movie Review – The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle (2017)
Written Michaël Dudok de Wit & Pascale Ferran
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit

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An unnamed man is struggling to stay afloat during a violent storm on the ocean. He wakes up on the shores of a deserted island. After finding a source of fresh water and fruit, the man decides to use the bamboo that grows on the island to build a raft. His first attempt fails when an unseen force from beneath breaks the raft apart. After two more attempts, he finally spots the culprit, a giant red sea turtle. From there the relationship between the man and this turtle takes some unexpected turns and becomes a film about the stages of human life.

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Movie Review – The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Directed by Chris McKay

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Batman (Will Arnett) is living the life. He fights villains every night, drives and flies around in amazing machines, and hangs out in his comically huge mansion. Everything changes at Commissioner Gordon’s retirement party when the new police boss has plans to phase Batman out of the picture. Bats also meets orphan Richard Grayson (Michael Cera) who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. Alfred the butler (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned about his employer’s lack of personal relationships and hopes Grayson can remedy that. Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has big plans to solidify his reputation as Batman’s greatest enemy.

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Movie Review – Moana

Moana (2016, dir. Ron Clements, John Musker)

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Moana is captivated by the stories her grandmother tells about her people and their mythology. The story of the demigod Maui particularly inspires a sense of exploration in the young woman. However, she is the daughter of the village leaders and is expected to maintain life on the island as it is. The ocean begins to communicate with Moana, and she learns from her grandmother that their people used to sail across the ocean living on different islands. When Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, darkness began to spread across the world. That darkness has reached the shores of their island and Moana cannot stay put any longer. She sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, saving her people.

In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, a film that would serve as the template for princess movies to come for the next 25+ years. Moana very closely follows that formula: A young woman expected to follow the expectations of her parents, she feels a yearning to travel beyond the borders of the land she knows, an event occurs that pushes her beyond the boundaries, she has a weird/silly/funny pet, she conquers a great evil despite feeling apprehensions. It is the traditional hero’s journey story that has cleverly replaced the original Disney style of princess stories. If you haven’t seen movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty recently then you may have forgotten how annoying the characters are. Those earlier animations seem more like an exercise in animation technique more than a story about characters with arcs. So, while I greatly appreciate Disney presenting stories about more active rather than reactive princesses, I hope that we continue to see diversity in character but also in the way stories are told and the types of stories being told. Zootopia highly impressed me as a kind of story I haven’t seen from Disney before.

Moana is a lot of fun, but I know I am not the intended audience for this film. It’s a children’s film and thus the story arcs are very evident and classical. There’s not a lot of character complexity but that wouldn’t be appropriate for the intended audience. One element I greatly appreciated was that the film doesn’t have a villain that follows the characters through the whole movie. This lets the movie feel like an actual myth being retold and keeps the focus on Moana’s arc rather than subplots. There are some antagonists who show up, my personal favorite being the Kakamora, animated coconut pirates. The sequence where these monsters attack has been revealed to be a direct reference to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is just subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as a crass pop culture reference. The film’s final obstacle in the form of Te Ka the lava demon has a clever twist that shies away from the act of killing the “final boss”. Lately, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to films that don’t follow the traditional black/white good/evil dichotomy. And it is very refreshing to see this in a children’s film.

I was very impressed with the level of computer animation. It took me awhile to be sold on the aesthetic as a replacement to classic cel animation for Disney pictures, but at this point, they have really perfected it. I’m not one who expects CG to be “realistic,” I’d rather see the technology be used to create the fantastic and impossible. Why recreate something we can already see in the real world when you can make something look real that could never be. While watching Moana, I was captivated by the texture and weight of objects. The previously mentioned Kakamora looked more like stop motion animation than something that was flat and two dimensional. People still look flat to me, but the world around them (grass, trees, water, man-made objects) looked like you could lift and hold them.

With Moana and Zootopia up against each other at the Oscars, I would still have to give it to Zootopia. This is not a slight to Moana, but an acknowledgment that Zootopia was a kind of story we have never had in as much depth and relevance from Disney before. Moana, while an excellent example of Disney creating more diverse characters, follows a very traditional and unsurprising story arc. It’s a film I’m sure kids and parents will enjoy watching again. Zootopia is a larger statement that I suspect will be remembered and studied in a way Disney films don’t traditionally do.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016, dir. Sam Liu, Bruce Timm)

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Batman: The Killing Joke is an adaptation of the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The original text tells the story of a possible final showdown between Batman and his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The battle hinges on the sanity of police commissioner Jim Gordon after The Joker shoots his daughter Barbara and tries to drive Gordon mad by taunting him over the randomness of the act. As this battle of ideologies rages on, we get distorted memories from the Joker about what his origin as a horrific villain could have been. The emphasis is on the idea that one bad day can destroy a normal person. Due to the short length of the comic, the writer of the film added an additional thirty minutes of content to flesh out Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl.

I first read The Killing Joke as a freshman in college in 1999. I had never encountered writer Alan Moore up until that point and I did find it a captivating read. This is mainly due to the way it turns the Joker into a tragically pathetic figure. The book also leaves the final moments up in the air as to what Batman does to the Joker. I’ve probably read it a half dozen times in total over the years. A valid point has been made in recent years about its treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is shot early on in the comic and pops up one more time for a doctor to declare her paralyzed. Essentially, Barbara is treated as a plot device to motivate Batman and torture her father. There’s no humanity in what happened to her and it took a few years before other writers redeemed the character. In retrospect, Alan Moore even views the comic as too violent and cynical. I can’t help but retain some love for the text due in part to what I find an interesting exploration of the Joker’s psyche, but I still recognize the mistreatment of Barbara Gordon.

The film has some huge problems in its attempts to “fix” this slight of Ms. Gordon. The thirty additional minutes of story focus on Batgirl pursuing the nephew of a Gotham City crime boss. Francesco is attracted to Batgirl despite her attempts to take him down and attempts to drug and force himself on her, which she dodges by locking herself in a vault. There’s also a subplot where she talks about her relationship with Batman, describing him as a yoga instructor, to a coworker while commiserating on her love life. This eventually escalates to Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop. This is not something I was expecting to see happen as in the comics there has never been a relationship between the two. She’s closer to Robin’s age and has been more involved with him when they were adults. But here, Barbara is in her early 20s so it’s not illegal, but still cringey. Later in the film, she reaches out to Batman and he brushes her off and she realizes it’s connected to their sexual encounter. I understood Batman’s motivation of not wanting to become too close to anyone lest them become compromised, but the only sequence read very awkward and completely unnecessary.

The added Barbara material works even less in the final two-thirds of the film after she is shot. Just like the original graphic novel she fades into the background and it becomes a Batman/Joker story. The Joker doesn’t appear until about 40 minutes into the film which is another odd structure piece. The Joker’s dialogue is lifted straight from the original text and while, for the most part, it doesn’t play awkward there is one moment where he puts Gordon on a hellish ghost house ride and it is way too wordy and overbearing with philosophical content. It doesn’t feel like the Joker would say this out loud, particularly the voice of Mark Hamill as the Joker. On the page, it’s not bad, but page to film translations of comics are never a great idea.

The animation is a very mixed bag. There is a concerted effort to make the iconic moments from the original text pop on screen and it looks alright. The rest of the animation comes across as very cheap and continues the trend with so many of DC’s animated feature films looking subpar. There was a featurette released a few months ago where the creators explained that original artist Brian Bolland’s style was too hard to emulate in animation so they looked at other artists, including Kevin Nowlan. I didn’t see much of Bolland or Nowlan in any of this animation. It just looked very poorly done.

I can’t really recommend Batman: The Killing Joke animated film. There are just so many technical and narrative missteps that add up to make a mess of a film. I had high hopes for this one. DC Animated had surprised me with its Dark Knight Returns and Year One adaptations but really missed the mark here. I would still say the graphic novel is worth reading if you haven’t, but the philosophical study of the Joker has been covered elsewhere, particularly The Dark Knight Returns in a much more interesting way than this animated film.

Zootopia (2016, dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)

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Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny who travels from the farm to the big city with one dream: to become a police officer and make the world a better place. The force is made up of much larger beasts (lions, tigers, bears, etc.) and Judy is put on meter maid duty. This innocuous job leads her into the path of con-fox Nick Wilde and on the trail of a missing otter. The duo explore the various boroughs of Zootopia and travel deeper and deeper down a winding trail of mystery and political intrigue. Along the way, they discover the harmful power of stereotypes and work to recognize each other as unique animals.

The world of Zootopia, a place where predators and prey live in harmony, is well built. A lot of time was spent on worldbuilding and it shows. Much like Pixar films where every frame is filled with details, Zootopia gives us a city that is populated to the gills. I started to think about how much fun it would be to explore this world in a well made video game and see all the corners the film didn’t have the time to reveal to us. We spend most of our time in Savanna Central, the most diverse borough. However, we also visit Tundratown (hope to an homage to the Godfather), the Rainforest District (which features one of the most thrilling action sequences of the film), and Little Rodentia (a miniaturized version of Greenwich Village, home to mice, shrews, and voles).

About halfway through the film, I immediately began to think about Black Lives Matters. The main plot of the film is touching upon current events: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, the continuing violence and racial profiling of police against black people. The film does this in an unexpected way. Traditionally, predators have been presented, not just in Disney productions but all media,  as bloodthirsty villains (Shere Khan, Scar, The Big Bad Wolf, the list goes on). Zootopia clearly wants to challenge that assumption as a way to talk to adults and kids about the destructive effects they have on individuals. All Foxes are crafty and liars, right? Lions just want to tear apart the closest gazelle. It would have been so easy for the film to become heavy handed and obvious with its themes, but the screenplay handles them masterfully. You’re not being preached at, you’re being told a well developed story about two individuals whose perspectives are changing.

Disney Animation doesn’t seem to have the prolific output of Pixar, but when they do release a film it’s of the highest quality (Tangled, Frozen). Zootopia is definitely one of the best and fully realized films that have released to to date. The film never panders to its audience and adheres to presenting a well developed narrative with a rich cast of characters. While the film isn’t art house animation, it never backs down from dealing with difficult and complex ideas.

Ghost in the Shell (1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii)

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I have a complicated history with anime. First off, I am not an anime fan. There are specific works that I have enjoyed, but as a genre I rarely seek it out. In childhood, I got caught up in the super sentai (think Power Rangers) cartoon serial Ronin Warriors when it aired in syndication one summer. In college I saw the standards (Akira, Vampire Hunter D, lots of Miyazaki). It was in college that one of my roommates rented Ghost in the Shell, but decided to watch it at 3am in the morning and I only remembered faint images. With the upcoming Scarlett Johanssen adaptation I thought it would be good to sit down and watch this now classic anime film.

Motoko Kusanagi is a team leader in Section 9, a paramilitary police organization in an unnamed urban sprawl of the future. Kusanagi is a full body cybernetic being, meaning she was once a human with an organic body who went through a process to transfer her consciousness into a Shell, a la she is the Ghost in the Shell (words are fun). The main case that our protagonist is pursuing is to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious terrorist hacker who has caused deadly trouble across the globe. This leads her into an exploration of her understanding of what makes her human and in turn what she will become.

There’s no argument that Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning. There is minimal computer generated animation, used in the internet and map visualizations. For the most part this is gorgeous hand drawn cel animation and reminds us what a glorious craft and art that style of animation still is. At the halfway mark, there is a famous break in the action for a tour of this future cityscape. This sequence could be cut and out and used as complete short film. As a piece of animation the film stands as a work that transcends the idea of animation as a exclusively children’s genre or something that is schlock.

When we get the themes of the film I start to get less enthusiastic. There is no way you can miss the themes of the film because they are wielded like a sledgehammer. Characters regularly talk in a hyper-philosophical manner, not as terrible as The Architect monologue from Matrix Reloaded, but in the same vein. The film was based on a manga so I suspect, as I found when I read Akira after seeing the film, volumes of content had to be cut to make the run-time. The brevity of the film also left me feeling little connection to the characters. I understood who the Puppet Master was and what happens to Kusanagi but it felt like it all happened so fast I had little time to connect with them.

I am able to see why Ghost in the Shell is such an important work, it builds upon groundwork laid by Philip K Dick and William Gibson in positing not just the technical conceits of our future, but in the philosophical and psychological future of humanity. It also has obviously inspired directors like the Wachowskis and James Cameron in the way they explore notions of human consciousness and altering our forms. I can see revisiting this film in the future to glean more and I am even inclined to delve into the manga to see this world fleshed out further.