I don’t know all the comic book characters in the Marvel comics, because I stopped reading comics in 1969. I have nothing against them, I just developed other interests. Fans of the comics however will be burdened by their expectations with the introduction of each new character in a big screen adaptation of the comic. I both benefit and suffer because of my detachment. I benefit by not having preconceived notions about how a character should be played, what stories to be told and I don’t have the artwork from the comics haunting my brain and forcing unfavorable comparisons. I suffer because I miss out on the anticipation of a new character. I don’t have a ready data base of knowledge to draw upon when trying to figure out who is who in a new film. So which of these two sides do I prefer? It’s simple, I like my ignorance because it fuels my joy of discovery. This week, I got to discover a Comic Book hero that I suspect I will enjoy for a long time. This movie surprised me in all the good ways a movie should.
Moving into Phase Four of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was going to be a challenge for me. Most of the characters I was long familiar with were being retired from active film service. I knew that new storylines and characters were coming, I just was not sure how I would respond to them. When Doctor Strange showed up in the MCU, I did not think I would care much for that type of story. It did not take long for me to take to it with enthusiasm. I felt the same way going into this film. I thought it might be OK, and I would live with being a little underwhelmed. It is so great to say I went the other way. This was a blast, the character has great potential, and the world building in this was not so convoluted that I rejected it out of hand. When taken on it’s own out of context, it is pretty darn great.
There are comic fans who grow weary of origin stories, but I am not one of those. I enjoy discovering the background of a superhero, learning about their human weaknesses as well as their strengths. If you create a rich environment and colorful characters to go with the hero, so much the better. Shang Chi starts in the past, travels to different dimensions, operates in familiar contemporary environments and then takes us back to those magical dimensions that we started off with. This film also manages to accomplish something a lot of comic book movies fail at, creating an interesting climax for the final battle of the movie. We were given enough information to know that we should dread something that is coming, but it was not belabored and when it arrives, there are still surprises for us and some tension as a result.
I’m not sure I would love a whole comedy show by Awkwafina, but I have been given enough of her in movies the last few years that I appreciate the dose level she is providing at the moment. Whenever she is on screen, expect a little injection of fun. When she gets some opportunity to act she has been solid (The Farewell), and in this movie, she gets to be more than the comic relief. There are a bunch of wonderful actors that I am not familiar with because they appear primarily in television shows or in Asian language films. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the powerful and evil Xu Wenwu was appropriately conflicted, he is more tunnel visioned than bad in this story. Simu Liu was great as the lead, he is not simply an iron fisted warrior, but presented as a complete character with a sense of humor and a young man’s foolishness. Michelle Yeoh, provides an elegant touch with aging beauty and wisdom to go with her character’s stern demeanor and family traditions.
Because there are some connections to earlier MCU films, it would be a spoiler to reveal too many appearances by other actors. I will say that the presence of one character in particular helps redeem his storyline in an earlier film, and makes this one the sort of fun movie we have expected from Marvel since the first “Iron Man”. So even though the earlier MCU films have played out their plots, there are still strings to be tugged on, and doing so has lead not to the unraveling of an intricate piece of knitting, but rather it reveals some hidden gems that we will get to explore more. It’s great when a movie is so much more than you expected, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of those.
What appears to be a fantasy adventure from the trailer above, is actually a slow moving meditative visual poem. That seems like it would be appropriate given the source material, but a theatrical film requires a few things to meet an audiences expectations. “The Green Knight” lacks those essential ingredients. That does not mean it is a worthless enterprise, but it will test the patience of most viewers and it will still frustrate those who are committed to experiencing it as it is meant by the director.
David Lowery has made three films I have reviewed on this site before: “Pete’s Dragon“, “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man and the Gun“. I found value in all three but not much entertainment in one of them, “A Ghost Story”, unfortunately, that is the film in Lowery’s catalogue that feels the most like “The Green Knight”. Pacing is a legitimate tool for story telling. A slow burn toward an action scene or a pause for the irony of a joke to set in can make a film better. However, when the pace feels like a slog, and the audience begins to notice that the story is not moving so much as lumbering, pacing may defeat the film’s ability to hold an audience’s attention. I think that is the case here. There are several scenes that are beautifully shot, but you start to notice the shot more than the story. One sequence in particular stood out for me. As Sir Gawain, Dev Patel’s central character, encounters a group of giants, the film seems to stop merely to acknowledge the fact that we are seeing giants. They do not advance the plot and in fact, there is a moment of confusion as the only other character who accompanies Gawain on his whole journey, dissuades him from following up with the giants. We never discover why, and it is just another incident but not an event that happens on the journey to confront the Green Knight.
Patel is an interesting choice for the part of Gawain. I’m sure that somewhere there is a diversity driven audience that is pleased to see a person of color in this kind of film. There may have been a time when that seemed to be a breakthrough, but for me that time is long passed. The color of a character may be important in some stories, but in this and so many other films, why should it matter? To me, the question is whetehre the actor has the characteristics to sell us on the part they are playing. Patel is brash when he needs to be and subdued when it feels appropriate. The quality of humbleness, which is a characteristic of a knight is tested by the script rather than Patel’s performance. It is easy to project onto his face the fear, confusion and dread that the audience must go through. The problems with the film have to do with things other than the casting and work of the actors.
Although the story has the components of a narrative heroes journey, it never feels that way. Each incident or event feels independent of the next. There are some call backs toward the end of the piece which try to tie some components of the story together, but it does not really succeed at doing so. There are several instances where the audience point of view is that of the protagonist, and then the perspective shifts and we get an outside view of events. This could also potentially be a time loop film since we are told the same story in two completely different ways on more than one occasion. Does Gawain need to die to meet his expectations? Is he a good man or a fallen one? How best confront your own doubts? The fact that the film asks the questions and then provides multiple answers instead of suggesting a single vision is infuriating at the end.
We had a good discussion of this film on the Lambcast and you can listen to it here:
Tonight I was lucky enough to see a special preview of the new Dune trailer. Tickets were reserved through the Facebook site for the Dune movie. We went down an hour early and we were glad that we did because there was a long line when we got there. Having followed the directions I knew that I was not supposed to bring in any electronic devices. It turns out that they weren’t collecting them after all so well other people around me took some pictures posted on Facebook, Instagram, and assorted other sites I sat on my hands patiently waiting for the show to start. Everybody was surprised to discover that in addition to the trailer, which would be shown at the end of the presentation, we were going to get a chance to see the first 10 minutes of the movie. There was an audible gasp from the audience and people seemed quite excited. Once the film started excitement grew, this movie is going to be incredible. Last year when the trailer dropped for the film that was supposed to open in November, I was generally pleased but I was not inspired by what I saw. That first trailer seem to emphasize characters and a little bit of the action. You saw a little bit of the planet and that was it. This this material covered the first 10 minutes of the movie and then a 5 to 10 minutes segments that will probably be about Midway, that features the worm attack on a spice harvester. So we saw 2 long sequences that featured some spectacular special effects, amazing costumes, and unbelievable visuals and some solid acting.
The director Denis Villeneuve spoke on screen about his enthusiasm for the project and he introduced and spoke with composer Hans Zimmer, who talked about inventing instruments for the score to suggest an alien environment. The sounds that we heard we’re pretty amazing and they definitely are distinctive and different from other kinds of Science Fiction films. So this 30-minute presentation included the first 10 minutes of the film a long sequence that’s filled with action and special effects, and while they were talking about the music we saw several clips from other segments of the movie. This film is simply going to rock. You will be overwhelmed with a creativity that the director and other filmmakers have brought to this project.
I have high hopes for the movie success because the enthusiastic response of the audience and the number of people who showed up for this. We arrived an hour early and there were a hundred people in line in front of us, by the time they let us end they were another hundred people behind us. That’s not for a screening of the movie folks that’s for a screening of the trailer and some promo material. At the conclusion of the film as the audience was filing out we were all offered a miniature version of the IMAX movie poster. This was an AMC IMAX theater that we saw the preview in. The size of the screen is impressive although it is one of those IMAX presentations it is not really seven stories tall. Anyone who sees this movie for the first time streaming on their home television is crazy. You will want to see this with an audience, you will want to be part of an experience, you will miss the size of the screen no matter how big your home theater is.
If you were not aware, I am in essence, continuing the original project that launched this blog, with another project focused on the Summer Movies of the 1980s. We are only a few days in so it would be easy to catch up. Those of you who have followed or subscribed to this Web Site are encouraged to do the same on this new project. The Kirkham A Movie A Day blog page will continue, this is just something extra for the Summer Season. Come on over and have some fun.
One of the best horror films of the last few years has a follow up, and it does so much right that I am willing to ignore most of what is wrong (which was not much). The original film, “A Quiet Place” tells the story of a family, coping with the after effects of an alien invasion of a different kind. We don’t know what brought this species to our planet, but we do know the impact it has had on humanity and it is devastating. Our family is a microcosm of the world, managing as best they can, but early on in the story, there is a horrifying moment that inadvertently drives an emotional wedge between an adolescent girl and her father. While managing to survive is the main story, the key theme of the film is the love that the father has for his family and the lengths to which they all struggle to express that love. The suspense is built up in a slow and incredibly tense manner, and the conclusion of the film feels hopeful despite the fact that significant loss occurs and huge barriers lie in front of the family.
This film picks up at the same spot that the first film ended, with one major side road. We have a flashback opening that reveals the first day of the alien crisis on this part of the world. This is an incredibly tense sequence, which is reminiscent of two other apocalyptic type films in the not too distant past, Zach Snyder’s reworking of “Dawn of the Dead” and the Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock, “Bird Box”. In essence we see how quickly the façade of civilization can vanish in a catastrophe. This feels like we are watching the events in real time and the overwhelming confusion and panic are shared by we the audience as much as the characters in the story. The major problem with this film is that the opening sequence is the best one on the movie, so everything else will seem a little less than it should by comparison.
In reality, that should not be the case. There are a half dozen sequences of immense terror and even greater suspense. Like the best of Hitchcock and Spielberg, each of those moments gets racketed up with small complications that make the moment a bit more intense. Director John Krasinski, has studied those masters well. Most of those little complications have been set up in the story so they feel organic rather than tacked on, and the scenes work well in the moments. Having rewatched the first film two nights before, it was satisfying to see how efficient it was at getting to the point and moving the story along. This movie makes a great effort to repeat that efficiency. It would have been an easy side trip to take by spending more time with the groups of humans who are coping differently than our main family, but that would take away from the dynamic of those relationships, which are the point of the story.
Having managed to avoid the trap of turning this into another zombie movie, where we discover that humans are also the monster, Krasinski as principle screenwriter for this episode, falters a little by separating the story into two paths. It is a typical strategy, and it works adequately for the plot but not as much for the themes. Emily Blunt was the key figure in the first movie, and young Millicent Simmonds was important supporting point. Those roles are reversed her and Simmonds has to carry the movie, and her plot themes are good but had mostly been resolved in the first film. Blunt’s character here is a fierce fighter for the family, but her story is not advancing the plot, and we already knew what she is capable of. Noah Jupe, as the other child in the family does get to evolve a bit in the film, but that story line feels the least organic of all the things happening to this group. Cillian Murphy takes on a surrogate role in the film, and his character development is the new thing that we need more of in the movie. His hopelessness is a good counter point to the fragile perseverance of the Abbot family. Because the story has been bifurcated, we get a little less time with this plot than I personally would like. I thought it was credibly developed and played well by the actors, but the transitions between the action sequences feel a little too quick for this to be a complete story.
All movies with a horror theme seem to need a jump scare or two. Some of them seem to consist only of those kinds of moments. The first film was judicious in it’s use of those kinds of scares, this one is a little more dependent on them and so it feels like a lesser film, even though it is quite good. The movie does not feel like a cash grab, I think the story sustains itself well and we as an audience had earned a follow up by giving the Abbott’s our hearts in that first film. I can also see where a follow up to this film could work perfectly well without having to force us into a contrivance to justify the story. In large part because we understand the threat in this film more clearly than in the first, it loses something. There are also continuing plot convivences that will bother people who start to notice them, and that will likely occur to many. Still, I will give a pass to those points for the suspense and energy that this film brings to a theater, and yes, I said theater. That is where you have to see this movie if you want to catch it before Independence Day. So “A Quiet Place Part II” will not take a position on the podium of films who have sequels that are superior to the original. That will remain a fairly exclusive spot to reach. It will however satisfy the suspense fix you are looking for, and it will burnish the careers of all the principle, but especially the director and Millicent Simmonds.
As a child of the 70s, it is of course inevitable that I would be infected by the virus that was “Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell”. The original album was a late 70s antidote to Candy Pop, Disco and novelty music that made up so much of the decades music. Heh, I fully embraced all that stuff so that is not a criticism, merely an observation. I knew the singer Meat Loaf from the movies. Yes I was one of those regulars at “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Saturdays at Midnight. When the inaugural recording project came out, it could not helped but be noticed by the stylized cover art.
Also on the cover was an additional credit, right at the bottom, “Songs by Jim Steinman”. That is where I first heard the name of the mad genius who practically invented the Power Ballad for the next generation of hard rock acts. I remembered reading a story about Steinman who said in the article, that one of the ways he was inspired to write the music for the album was by listening to the complete Ring Cycle by Ricard Wagner, in one sitting. That’s more than 14 hours of opera in a row. I thought that was a great idea so I went to the library to check out recordings of the Wagner Operas. I did not succeed. I listened quite a bit, but not all four operas and not all at one sitting. My failure convinced me that Steinman was crazy and also brilliant. Listening to the music on this album showed me how the scale and scope of an opera piece could be distilled down to a single musical segment (although a heck of a lot longer than most three minute pop songs).
The follow up to the album was complicated by Meat Loaf having vocal issues and some falling out between the two over artistic issues (probably money too). They would reconnect years later, but in the interim, Steinman released a collection of his works that he recorded himself.
I bought the LP while I was in grad school, at the record store in the University Village, right across from college. Once again I was drawn to the overblown passages, soaring melodies and humorously dark lyrics. There is definitely a style that is identifiable as a Jim Steinman work.
This last week, Mr. Steinman passed away at the age of 73. You might think his overblown songs were relics of a particular time, that is until you go to a movie or watch one at home streaming, and suddenly, there they are again, the distinctive building structure or repeated musical runs as they crescendo behind a booming voice that suddenly becomes softer, lulling you in until it slaps you again with an operatic outburst. Steinman’s work lives on in dozens of movies. Frankly, there are many that I have never seen, and some even slipped by that I have seen but I forgot. In concert with a Roll Your Own Top Five Lambcast, i now present an inventory of Jim Steinman music in films. Let me star with one that I was really surprised about and doesn’t seem to fit with his usual oeuvre.
No Matter What-From Notting Hill
This is a love song, that is smooth and melodic, and soft. It is actually performed by a boyband from the era that I never heard of, Boyzone. They were an Irish singing group that had substantial success in the U.K. and Ireland. The reason the music is atypical is because this was a collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Weber. Steinman is credited with the lyrics. It is an appealing enough song for a rom-com, and the montage of scenes form the movie suggest it was probably used to promote the film. I’ve seen Notting Hill a few times but I had never noticed this credit until this week.
The next three pieces were not written specifically for movies. The first of these is another soft rocker that is atypical of Steinman’s bombast but the lyrics and the sad melody betray him as it’s author. It was in fact a substantial hit in the U.S. for a band from Australia.
Making Love Out of Nothing at All
As you listen to the chorus build, that is the main clue to the authorship of the song. The lyrics have the vaguely sad and empty emotional component that Steinman can be known for.
The song was used in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie action film from 2005. It is apparently used in the Dumb and Dumber prequel that no one saw.
A more appropriate vocal for the Steinman style is found in the Bonnie Tyler version.
Paradise by the Dashboard Light
The ultimate car make out opera was of course a hit from “Bat out of Hell”, so it was not made for the movies but it has been used in them a few times
I have never seen “This is 40”, but this song is apparently used in it and I bet I can imagine how. It also was used in “Leap of Faith” which I have not seen since it came out 1992. I do however remember the brief reference to it which was a little spot on with the lyric, in “Josie and the Pussycats”. It did make me smile however so it was worth it.
Total Eclipse of the Heart
Not technically written as a song for a movie, but Steinman plundered his score for the 1980 film “A Small Circle of Friends”, to make this song’s verse melody. Bonnie Tyler became something of a muse for him when she sang this song and took it to the top of the charts (incidentally keeping the “Air Supply” song listed above from reaching number one).
The backing vocals are credited to other singers but if you listen to the first “turn around bright eyes” it sure sounds like Steinman from “Bad for Good”. He also said he started it as a song for a musical version of Nosferatu. So while it was not written for a specific film it has been used prolifically in a hell of a lot of movies, including: Urban Legend
Harold and Kumar go to White Castle
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Some Days are Better Than Others
Dead Snow 2 Red v. Dead
The remaining songs for this post were all tailored for the movies.
Original Sin-The Shadow
As was typical in the 90s (and probably still is) a pop song was desired to play over the closing credits of a movie. “The Shadow” was a less than successful, although highly watchable take on the pulp character from the 1930 radio show and comics. The score from the film was by the great Jerry Goldsmith, with a big orchestra supplemented by synthesizers. It includes the usual innovative sounds of a Goldsmith work. The pop song for the credits is completely separate from that except that it has some of the same dark, lush melodies that might be found in the score. No Bonnie Tyler here, instead the song was performed by dance music diva Taylor Dane.
Holding Out for A Hero-Footloose
Dean Pitchford who is the screenwriter for the movie Footloose, has a writing credit on every song in the movie, including this one. I can’t say what his contributions were, but I can say the song is unmistakably a Jim Steinman epic. Wikipedia quotes The A.V. Club’s William Hughes as stating that the song “displays some of the worst of its decade’s (and composer’s) typical excesses: The lyrics are laughable, and the heavy-handed synths and piano riffs come dangerously close to cheese”, but adds, “The sum of those parts transcends their limitations, hooking directly into pure emotional need like only the greatest of torch songs can.
So even harsh critics can see the transcendent nature of a Steinman song’s passion. Once again, Bonnie Tyler is the muse that brings Jim’s song to [larger than]life.
Tyler’s original version has featured on several soundtracks, including Footloose, Short Circuit 2, Who’s Harry Crumb?, Bandits, Regular Show , The Way Way Back and The Angry Birds Movie 2.
Jennifer Saunders recorded a version for Shrek 2.
The last two songs I’m going to mention are both from the same movie.
Nowhere Fast-Streets of Fire
This may be my favorite song on the list (at least until I listen to the next one). Streets of Fire is a film that was a misfire from a narrative point of view but from a stylized visual perspective it is absolute genius.
The chorus is pure Steinman
“You and me are going nowhere slowly
and we’ve gotta get away from the past
There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, baby
But we should be goin’ Nowhere Fast”
The song was performed by a studio group called Fire Inc. with Laurie Sargent as the lead vocalist. Diane lane is the on screen singer Ellen Aim, the lead of her own band. This is the dramatic opening song for the movie. It has a hard driving intro and takes off from there. The last song in the movie goes the other direction.
Tonight Is What It Means to be Young-Streets of Fire
The song is led into by the big single from the film [Not a Steinman song, “I Can Dream About You”] but you can tell it is the climax of the film. The story is that the film makers expected to get the rights to the Bruce Springsteen song “Streets of Fire” and they even shot an ending featuring that tune, but the rights to use that song were denied. Steinman was asked to come up with something quickly and he gave them this song which he wrote in two days.
According to the wiki version: So I wrote this song that I loved and I sent it to them and he and Joel, I remember, left me a great message saying, I hate you, you bastard, I love this song. We’re gonna have to do it. We’re gonna have to re-build the Wiltern Theater, which they had taken down, it was a million dollars to re-do the ending… and I felt all his hostility for Universal. A guy named Sean Daniels, who was head of production, one day said to me, well there is hostility because we understand you waited about eight months to come up with that final song and you never did it. I said, where’d you hear that? I did it in two days. He said, Jimmy Iovine. So I went to Jimmy Iovine and I said all that to his, yeah it’s true, I know. I blamed you but you can’t be upset with me. I’m not like a writer. I’ve gotta make my way with these people. I had to have a scapegoat.
Regardless of it’s origins, it’s a great song, again by the studio band this time with vocals by Holly Sherwood. She had a solo career in the seventies and sang backup vocals on many Steinman projects.
So there you have it, a list of some great songs from movies by an artist who was incredibly successful but was not the frontman for most of his career. His Wagnerian brand of Rock music calls to mind certain emotions that mesh well with a lot of films as you can see.
Today Jim Steinman is the angel on the beach, his hair flying out in ribbons of gold and his touch has the power to stun.
So this review is late in coming because I did not see this until after we did our Oscar Preview show on the Lambcast. The others who were on the show recommended it and everyone seems to agree it is the likely Best Picture winner. In our current times, with the limited releases we had this last year, and the way the Academy has consistently trended for several years toward honoring smaller movies, I can 100% understand why this will be the case. It may be limited in scope, and plot and technical innovation, but it is beautiful and it contains another marvelous performance by Francis McDormand.
I am sure that someone, somewhere will find themes in here that will offer a social criticism. In the long run, I don’t think that those ideas are what the movie is about or how it should be processed. This is a character study of a woman, who stands in for a number of like minded people, who can’t quite adjust to living a rooted life. It seems apparent that she did so for a number of years to be with her beloved husband, but the fact that her whole town vanishes seems to suit her. She is happy to be an itinerant worker, moving from job to job and place to place, in order to satisfy a need for independence that seems to define her and the others she crosses paths with.
As a travelogue, the film shows us some truly beautiful parts of our country, without simply becoming a travelogue. The vistas, sunsets, and roadside stops are all photographed in a way that draws us in but without being showy or self reverential. It is a crisp and efficient way of seeing things and the only time it seems to be drawing attention to itself is when it lingers on an image. Otherwise, we are seeing the world the way Fern, our main character, would see it.
While there is a sense of melancholy that hangs over Fern and the other “Nomads”, none of them seem to be bitter or unhappy. They are functioning in the moment and who thinks that every moment has to be uplifting for life to be worth? Sure Fern is a displaced person, but she never sees herself as a victim. She has multiple opportunities to settle into a more comfortable lifestyle but rejects those repeatedly because of her wanderlust and desire to be unfettered. As someone who treasures way too many things, quilts, pictures, dishes and even furniture, I know I would have a hard time with her life. McDormand shows Fern to be resourceful, and capable of managing herself. She is friendly but does not want to be encumbered by her friendships. In a number of ways, including the wandering lifestyle, she reminds me of my late sister-in-law Darla. They want to have friendships but they want them on their own terms. Comfort is less important to them than control. The ability to choose for yourself is more important than the consequences of some of those choices.
The director Chloé Zhao, has a good eye for those things that make the character personal. I don’t think the film is a technical marvel or innovative in any way, it is just put together in a manner that works for the kind of movie it is and I think restraint in choices may have much to do with the acclaim that her work on this has achieved. McDormand is a natural for a role like this, she is less fiery than she has been in other pictures where she is the central character, but I think that shows her range pretty well. This is a graceful movie that has a lot going for it. It is contemplative without telling you what to contemplate. It can be read in a number of ways which will probably inspire a thousand think pieces in magazines and cinema schools. The best thing about it is that it seems genuine and true to the person at it’s center.
“Voyagers” is a perfectly fine science fiction morality tale, that goes off the rails about halfway through and devolves into an average action film in space. The big ideas that it starts with get left behind for a replay of issues from some very familiar material. I think if they had stuck to the questions concerning the morality of the entire enterprise instead of becoming “Lord of the Flies” in space with sex, this could have been something special. As it is, you can enjoy it as a passable theatrical experience that will not sit long in your head.
Let me begin by telling you what I thought was intriguing about the concept in the first place. In order to allow the species to go forward, scientists have devised an ark, that they will send forth to populate a new planet. Since it will take 86 years to get there, and unlike other films in the genre, there is no hibernation technology, the decision is made to seed the galaxy with children derived from genetically manipulated and selected materials. The kids get raised in isolation so they do not know what it it is they are leaving behind. This is to spare them the emotional trauma of separation anxiety. Right there, you could stop and develop that storyline and have an interesting picture. That’s not what the script does. Instead, we go on an accelerated launch with only one adult to manage things for the three or four dozen four year old who are being set afloat. OK, that would make an interesting film also, but that section lasts five minutes and we then enter into teen world. Here. the emotions and biology of the passengers is being manipulated to sustain resources, space and to avoid potential emotional conflicts. The ethics of that choice would also be a worthy trail to follow. Instead, we get the consequences of a rejection of the process and what we end up with is “teens going wild”.
Much of what happens does not make sense given that the kids have been immersed in a controlled environment their whole lives. How do the genetic offspring of geniuses, go from docile well oiled parts of a grand plan to sex crazed maniacs within a short period of time. The story shortcut seems to be a little too quick. It also appears that in spite of their intensive education, starting practically out of the womb, they never studied ethics, philosophy, theology or any system that would justify a moral code. Some of these kids shed the veneer of civilization as quickly as taking off your coat. The main villain is practically leering with evil intent five minutes past a key point in the movie. His naked ambition remains hidden to almost all of the rest of the kids with the exception of our two or three heroic figures. There is one idea that works for a while, the rebel maniacs start exploiting fear and uncertainty among the whole crew about a possible outside threat. “The Thing” vide works well at building animosities but everyone gets pushed over the threshold so easily that it feels a bit laughable.
The young cast is attractive but sometimes a little too mechanical. The characters are supposed to be somewhat level headed but it’s not until some really bad things happen that they wake up from the growing threat. It was not clear why there was not more than one sustaining hand to guide these kids through the early part of their development, in fact at one point is seems as if they were going to be launched on their own. Fortunately Colin Farrell does go along for the ride, adding some credibility to the start of the whole process. I know it would be difficult to imagine him as impotent in the face of the growing problem, but the catalyst for the escalation seems to be a shortcut. Farrell certainly has a charismatic impact on the film, and that could dwarf the focus on the kids. Tye Sheridan has been solid in the things I have seen him in, and once the movie gets to the outburst of violence, he is a little more active, but early on he is playing it as a somnambulant. Lily-Rose Depp is new to me but she seemed very familiar as a type, I think if the movie was better this could have been a breakout part. As it is, she is simply the best in a largely bland set of performances.
Production design for this movie feels a bit trapped in pre 1970s sterility. Most of the sets consist of well lit hallways with some trim on the doors. The ambient lighting reminds me of THX-1138 and 2001. The exteriors of the space vehicle are vague and brief, suggesting that the budget here was not quite as big as it might have been originally. It looks like someone who was trying to project something futuristic, but they never got past modern minimalism. There were only two of us in the theater for this screening, which suggests to me that the future is not long for this world.
This mish mash of film ideas is all over the place. The movie has moments out of Transformers, Thor, Harry Potter and of course past Godzilla and Kong films. It creates some of the most implausible ideas to explain it’s own implausible ideas, and then shows us some amazing footage that looks like it could be two guys in suits wrestling among miniature models. So how is it that I don’t really hate this movie? It’s simple, it’s because this movie is designed to be stupid fun, based on old Japanese movies about a guy in a big green dragon suit destroying property.
Maybe the original Godzilla from the 50s had something to say about atomic weapons and it was played straight for the most part. My guess however is that people who fondly recall these movies think of the later films, that featured Mothra, Baby Zilla, Rodan and other rubber suit characters. If the 1990s “Power Rangers” TV episodes are a delight to you, then this will be a gas. CGI monsters that act like rubber creatures in combat are just as entertaining.
At least this time, Millie Bobbie Brown has something to do, although Kyle Chandler might as well not be in the movie. Watanabe and Hawkins are long gone, and it’s not that they were bad in the earlier films they appeared in, they were unnecessary, not the actors, the characters. Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall replace them as unnecessary characters and we are just fine as a result. Brian Tyree Henry brings the funny and Julian Dennison is the requisite non-threatening friend who assists Brown in whatever it is she is doing.
Two stories play out, the first involves finding a secret place for the titans to have originated, and for some reason to take Kong there. The second story involves corporate shenanigan’s at “APEX” which is mysteriously linked to provoking Godzilla out of a three year non-active space. Fans of the old Toho films will know what is coming, everyone else will probably not be surprised, but let’s just say there is a reason that “Pacific Rim” exists.
I have had serious doubts about movies that portray mass destruction on the scale depicted here. If you started adding up all the dead, you will end up with a figure that is likely to out do the dollar gross for this movie in theaters on opening weekend. Here is the thing though, there is almost no attempt to show casualties that result from the mayhem. The sailors in a fleet are almost non-existent, and the citizens of Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated spaces in the world, are invisible. Thank goodness because a lot of building get knocked over and any sense of reality would be disquieting enough to turn us off.
It looks pretty funky, there are a few amusing moments, and the battles between the combatants are staged in a way that is so much clearer than other giants fighting each other movies. I was happy to see a solid turnout in the theater, even though this is also playing on HBO Max. We picked a Dolby Cinema experience and the sound mix was worth it. Do yourself a favor. If you have any real interest in this, see it in a theater. I watched it at home the next day and fell asleep. This is one of those foilms that needs theatrical to really work, and it does as far as it goes.
In the last few weeks, I have revisited a number of animated films that I remember having a solid emotional connection to. “Ratatouille” works like the devil and it has an emotional wallop to it at the end. Pixar has thrived on the “Toy Story” films and manages to get us with them almost every time. “Moana” and “Tangled” worked for me very well. “Frozen” was a moderate success from my perspective whereas it’s sequel is a disaster . “Raya and the Last Dragon” is perfectly fine in a number of ways and I can heartily recommend it to animation fans, but I must acknowledge a reservation. I felt more detached from the film than I should have.
This is an original story, with a production design that pays homage to a culture that is under represented in American animated movies. Let me start by complementing the artistry of the backgrounds and the inventiveness of the landscapes and nations that are presented in the story. The people who populate each segment of the lost nation of Kumandra, look distinct enough for us to identify but also they look as if they can share a culture as well. We don’t really get to spend much time in a couple of the segment nations that are labeled by the part of the dragon topography we see on the maps in the story. Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon each end up with a piece of critical gemstone that can be used to resist a mysterious plague that turns the living residents into stone. The mythology feels genuine for the cultures that the story is based on, even if they are invented.
Raya takes her place as a Disney Princess, and she is closer to Mulan than Elsa. This is a warrior who moves from being a little girl at the start of the film, to a woman on a crusade for the majority of the story. There is a turning point near the end of the film which feels completely appropriate given the set up of the story, so it should resonate well but for some reason it doesn’t quite hit for me, and I can’t really explain why. The character arc is right, the plot points lead us to this conclusion, and we have had a variety of character to relate to so we should feel invested. I just did not and that is a disappointment for me in spite of all the excellent work that the film makers did, apparently most of it from home under the pandemic rules.
One of the major characters in the story is the Last Dragon of the title, Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. Her take on the voice and characterization reminded me of Phyllis Diller and the animation style, while certainly in keeping with the production design, made this character feel a little too cartoon like. I enjoyed her attitude but in the context of the story it feels like some comic relief being imposed on the proceedings. There is also a baby character that seems designed for humor and heart but who also undermines some of the tone of the film. The character of Tong as the sole survivor of his nations populace was actually fun and tragic in the right proportions. Namaari is an antagonist that is also well thought out and the nickname she is given at one point is one that I will be adopting for my oldest daughter, Allison, get ready to be referred to as Princess Undercut.
This movie has everything going for it, and if I’d not seen every Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Fox film in the last thirty years, it probably would have worked for me a little better. Those of you with kids can safely assume they will be fine with this because it will probably feel fresh to them.