More notes on Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Getting the feel of writing again means I’m gonna have to figure out the triage on what to fit into the structure of my posts and what not to. But given that I am writing about some of my favorite movies of all time where I have a plethora of feelings and thoughts about, y’all should probably get used to the idea of me doing this for the next few months after each review:

Also SPOILERS

  • I feel like I highly undermined George Lucas’ part in the creation of this film (especially since he conceived of the character himself and put together most of the production elements and oversaw the filming) so that I could have a thesis on what animated Spielberg’s directing style. Spielberg has long maintained that the Indiana Jones movies are work-for-hires for him and they’re pretty much Lucas’ baby. I’m hoping if I find time to ever write about the subsequent three movies, I can course correct and present Lucas as the central auteur of the series that he is. Certainly I’d have more to say about Lucas than Spielberg with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  • “Besides you know what a cautious fellow I am”, Indy says as he fucking tosses a pistol across the room into an open suitcase. No firearm care or caution.
  • Also him saying he doesn’t believe in superstition kind of fails in the context of Temple of Doom being a prequel set before this movie.
  • Spielberg’s desire to make a straight on horror movie shows in the climax of the film with ghostly effects and the outrageous amount of grisly carnage happening in this adventure matinee. In fact, the imagery of the villains’ heads violently shrinking, melting, and exploding is the very first scene of the movie I ever saw and never realized it wasn’t a horror movie until I watched it in context years later (it was specifically playing on the screen of a Costco when I was a child and I assumed it was like… Creepshow or something).
  • Speaking of carnage, the bloodletting in the Nepal fight is pretty brutal as well and relatively jarring when alongside the moments of logs exploding on heads like cartoons. Still I absolutely love the moment with its “moment” by “moment” comic book strip style of framing and cutting, favoring background shadowplay in the light of fire and particularly the way that Indy escapes the flaming bar from immolating his face is where I learned to keep all elements of an action in each shot to creature sequence.
  • While we’re in Nepal, let’s talk about what a great one-shot that introduction of Marion is: functioning as gag (the drinking stamina game with a great physical punchline), tease (the focus on our characters’ hands and glasses), establishing shot (showing us the scope and space of the bar), character moment (Marion proving she can hold her own with the boys). If only the rest of the movie hadn’t fucked her over.
  • While we’re talking over flaws of the movie, which I feel are very few, I may as well address that Raiders of the Lost Ark is pretty damn Orientalist (among other things) and it’s probably my admiration of this film from an early age that got me already set on compartmentalizing problematic movies that still have my heart. Sucks that Spielberg and Lucas had, in their joy for 1930s adventure serials, also ended up taking up the ugly elements of them. Nevertheless, it’s nothing compared to the sort of shit that Indian people probably have to suffer with Temple of Doom from 3 years later (the only Indiana Jones movie that doesn’t actually have an issue with race I’d say is The Last Crusade and it’s still not… the best). In any case, if you want to hear a bunch of white men say the sort of shit you should have expected white men to say, read the transcript of Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan’s story conference.
  • Finding out that John Williams wrote “The Raiders March” to the rhythm of saying “To the rescue… Doctor Jones… to the rescue… Indiana Jones!” still warms me up inside. I’d like to find out the lyrics he wrote his other famous themes to possible one day.
  • Cutting from Indy saying “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along…” to him busting through on a white motherfucking horse to chase down the Nazi truck is one of my favorite cuts in all of cinema because I’m basic like that.
  • Much like Jurassic Park suddenly had a drop beyond the T-Rex gate, Raiders of the Lost Ark has a sudden cliff for a Nazi and his truck to fall off of once Indy fucks him up… and I honestly just don’t care because it’s still fun and cool and Nazi Punks Fuck Off.
  • I kind of feel bad for Pat Roach (even if he was in brownface during the scene in question) being unable to show off his swordfight choreography for that famous shootdown scene, but also y’know, not only is it a hilarious character moment in Indy… it’s also a great moment that shows how Spielberg – in his rush to get the movie made – cared for the well-being of his actors and crew and didn’t want to overwork them so boom! Sudden miracle of a gag!
  • That stunt where Indy goes under the truck is still one of my all-time favorite stunts. And I also kind of like the slapstick of the bystander being on the windshield of the chase and then flying off, then Indy and the driver share a laugh until Indy punches him in the face and kicks him out the car because Fuck You, Nazi.
  • Most importantly, that moment in the U-Boat where Indy hits a Nazi guy who fell below the frame and somehow that punch made the Nazi bitch’s cap fly up so Indy could put it on as a disguise is also a great gag.
  • People like to point out that if Indy had done nothing, Hitler would have been killed by the Ark probably. I respond to them with the words of the Dude: “You’re not wrong (well, you kind of are wrong since if Indy had done nothing, they would have never reached the Ark in the first place as they didn’t have the right location), you’re just a fucking asshole.”

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It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage…

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By the 1980s, Steven Spielberg had a reputation but not necessarily the one that you all are probably familiar with. Certainly, he had that one in a marginal way: he was already the golden boy young success story off of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, utilizing his New Hollywood background to perfect the populist blockbuster he essentially created with his big-time shark movie. But within the industry itself, he had another reputation as somebody who couldn’t really keep a budget or schedule. While Jaws and Close Encounters had made enough money to put in the mouths of any producers who might have taken issue with their notoriously overinflated production expenses and on-set issues, 1979 saw the release of 1941 – Spielberg’s first commercial and critical flop. So when he and the other New Hollywood Populist Traitor George Lucas were on vacation conjuring up a character they’d like to bring to the screen as a response to that globe-trotting action hero James Bond, Spielberg set in mind an idea that he was going to get this film made as a producer’s dream: under budget, ahead of schedule, period. This is of course humorous to think back on in the modern era where Spielberg now constantly has several projects on pre-production and is often able to quickly prepare a movie well in-advance of its slated release*, but I digress.

The film that resulted is, by most accounts, Lucas’ baby as producer and co-writer facilitating Spielberg’s entry into the director’s seat. But to my mind, Spielberg’s dead-set deliberate efficiency is – to my mind –  the core of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark, that very project that Spielberg and Lucas conceived of and released in the early summer of 1981, one of if not the best action movie of all time (or at the very least, my favorite). It is what informs Michael Kahn’s sharp cutting in between moments to get out of a scene exactly when the point is made and to keep any setpieces with a forward momentum that matches the sort of urgent running or riding that Raiders’ famous protagonist must go through. It is what informs Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay frontloading the majority of its exposition in an early college meeting so that we have pretty much all the information we need to get going, it is what informs that scene being preceded by a continuous setpiece seamlessly moving from the jungle to a temple back to the jungle without making us realize we were watching entirely separate sequences (again, credit to Kahn’s work). Hell, that very resolution was at the root of the famous scene where an epic swordfight is teased and shot down in a hilariously sardonic manner.

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If I may betray that momentum for a moment to backtrack regarding that exposition: Raiders of the Lost Ark was of course the movie that introduced us to that favorite of everyman action heroes Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) but I’ll get back to him shortly as well. No, what I completely skipped over is the setting of the pieces of this story: As the FBI approaches Indy after a semi-failed expedition, he is recruited for his knowledge to retrieve the Biblical Ark of the Covenant – in which Moses carried the tablets containing the Ten Commandments – before the Nazis could do so and utilize whatever power lives inside the artifact to rule the world. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s former lover and daughter of his late mentor Abner Ravenwood, recruits herself from Nepal into Indy’s journey to Egypt as she proves to be invaluable in the absence of her dad. And in the meantime, Indy’s inscrutable rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is guiding the Nazis to finding the location of the Ark, though guided by his own personal obsession with witnessing a means to possibly contact God. All of this information given in fewer scenes than can count on your hand and 98% of it before the 30 minute mark.

That leaves more than enough space for Spielberg to indulge instead in the inherent sweep of an adventure yarn, inspired by the 1930s serials where some plucky hero roams to exotic lands from the leafy hills of Peru to the snowy exile of Nepal to the hot cooking sands of Cairo and beyond. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe enhances the scope of these already exciting and distinct foreign lands with a smart usage of the immortal anamorphic frame as well as giving a horizontal read to all the action. Imagine that infamous swordfight joke working without the frame letting us read from Indy shooting the swordsman at the left and the swordsman falling to the right accentuating that the vast space is in the middle of them rather than above them. Or the car chase having nearly as much drive without such an aggressively directional frame. Not to ignore the sort of propulsion these setpieces get simply from the sounds: the characteristic comic book impact Ben Burtt gives to punches and whipcracks (for real, whipCRACKS!) and the famous peppy march to adventure that John Williams notches into his belt of iconic scores.

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On top of those tropes, we also have the beautiful ingénue in tow (although one also has to regret how Marion goes from an impressive heroine with a tough and funny introduction to a damsel in distress in a white dress before the halfway mark, despite the best efforts of Allen’s performance) and the artifact all the players seek dripping with mystique, taking full advantage of the advent of color and light to give the golden Ark all that shine and shimmer. But in any case, the seeking of that Ark is just as animated by that “need to get to the point” efficiency that drove Spielberg and spilled out into Kasdan and Kahn and Williams’ results: a movie that is constantly on the move. The same smooth segue that glides us from cutting through the jungle to cautiously traipsing past traps to escaping from a tumbling rock is what brings Raiders of the Lost Ark barrelling through its runtime from a dig to a trap to a brawl, occasionally allowing Spielberg and Kahn to wink at how ludicrously speedy we’ve gone out of the fire and into the frying pan.

And yet, the core of all of Raiders‘ charms beyond being an impeccably-crafted piece of nostalgic cinema is Ford, whose modern rough attitude feels like more clownish than downer. From the way he whines about having to go through “snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” to the exhausted way he shoots down swordsmen to the way his body crumbles to the ground like bricks as Pat Roach hits him, Jones is just as important an ingredient to having somebody fun to go on an adventure with as Raiders focuses on being an adventure fun to go on. Surrounded by lively stock types embodied by character actors, Ford’s bitter sarcasm and complaining (particularly the complaining – Indy’s indulgence in remarking about every goddamn thing that’s happening to him as a severe inconvenience) grounds the adventure as exhausting in its sweep before he wows us with leaping to his survival or bursting on a white horse. It was highly impressionable to me as a child and probably impelled a desire for real adventure, a disappointment at how hard that is, and a hatred for Nazis (informing me that “Nazi” equals “punching bag” more than that viral video of Richard Spencer getting socked).

It’s funny how a movie inspired by nostalgia for an classical way of storytelling ended up embodying a new idea of “classical” storytelling despite its DNA being seen in much of modern popcorn cinema. Like how no shark movie post-Jaws can avoid being seen as a “Jaws rip-off”, I can’t think of a single post-Raiders adventure film that doesn’t owe every element of its existence to Raiders. Perfection just bears imitators and it is a fruitless task to capture lightning in a bottle more than once (including this film’s sequels, though I have no small love for the entire franchise). Maybe they’re just digging in the wrong place.

*I’m thinking specifically of the minute amount of time in which The Post went from script to Oscar campaign smack in between filming and post-production of Ready Player One these past few years. This also mirrors the production cycle of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s Listas well as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad, as well as War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. And I’m probably forgetting other movies.

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Isle of Good Boys

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Isle of Dogs is the sort of movie that should have a first-class ticket into my heart (and indeed was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year). It’s not just the new Wes Anderson film, it’s the new Wes Anderson film returning to his lovely animation style from Fantastic Mr. Fox focusing on bunch of dogs set in Japan, with whatever fears of problematic elements (confirmed, I have to admit and will elaborate on, to be worse than I expected) at least promising to deliver an affinity for the styles of Japanese cinema. All of which it delivers on, even if the callbacks to Japanese cinema do not go further than Kurosawa Akira or Ozu Yasujiro.

Far be it from me to claim that Isle of Dogs ended up a disappointment. Indeed, I walked away from it with a smile on my face but one that wanes with every passing season with the thought that it perhaps felt like I – the ideal viewer for this kind of movie – needed to meet it halfway more than I should have had to.

Not a good necessity to have when you are writing a parable about the sweet selflessness of friendship, much as Anderson did based on a story he developed with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. That story is about a dystopian future in the Japanese city of Megasaki, where a threatening strain canine flu is the catalyst for Mayor Kobayashi Kenji (voiced by Nomura) to enact an order that all dogs be expelled to the nearby accurately-named Trash Island. He makes an example of this by having his son Atari’s (Rankin Koyu) guard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) be the first deportee.

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Within six months, the inhabiting dogs of the island have now orbited into their own packs and one particular pack made of the previously-pampered Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray; my favorite just because he looks the most adorable in his little league Dragons jersey), and led by grizzled stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) witness a little plane crash-landing with young Atari (distressingly injured from the crash for the rest of the film including an alarming bit protruding out of his head), who subsequently attempts to discipline them using the Seven Samurai theme and recruits them in search of his beloved dog. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, radical high school exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) investigates into the roots and endgoals of Mayor Kobayashi and his right-hand Major Domo (Takayama Akira)’s plan with the isle of dogs.

Did I say “parable”? Sorry, it gets more complex than that, but the center of the film is the growing bond between Akira and distrusting Chief (having suffered much as a stray in the metropolis) as they seek to reunite Akira with his best friend. Anyway, we may as well acknowledge the problematic elements out of the gate: the imposition of a white savior in Walker (who is a pretty annoying character), the stereotype of Asian mistreatment towards dogs (and caricatured design of Major Domo as some pale yellow fever grotesquerie), the overwhelming presence of non-Asian voices over Asian voice actors (and even though the Asian characters are voiced by Asian actors, much of their dialogue is talked over Frances “inclusion clause” McDormand – a frustrating matter when Anderson gives this movie’s title cards a lateral aesthetic that compliments its design), and especially a development in the third act that – I’m avoiding spoilers – recalls a horrifying atrocity the US commit against the Japanese in a manner that places the Japanese in the perpetrator role and brought me the closest to saying “fuck this”.

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Anyway, if you can push past that (And it’s a lot. My privilege as a non-Asian viewer is showing, but Justin Chang and Jen Yamato have a great episode of their podcast The Reel that cuts deeper into these issues), you get a very busily designed movie that mostly pays off in an aesthetic sense. When we’re opened to an diorama look of Megasaki, it is certainly reminiscent of the wide shot introducing the titular Grand Budapest Hotel to us, with moving parts and lights, centralized by the bright red Town Hall and a looming volcano in the distance. And that’s just the start of the sort of an abidance by Japanese cinema and Noh theater that production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod get to play with. Trash Island, made up mostly of blocks of garbage, gets to base its design on stacks or remnants of an old by-gone youthful world with its slides and theme park rides. And despite my complaint about Domo’s design, the rest of the humans are mostly made to look so unpersonable so that the dogs can be as scruffed up as they would be left to their own devices and still be entirely appealing in their bigs eyes (helped by a cast that mostly doesn’t have much to do as characters but still does it hella well; Tilda Swinton’s Oracle is hilarious in its facial expressions and Jeff Goldblum’s delivery of “I love gossip” is so Goldblum-y). More human than human, I’d claim the intention is.

The movement of all these pieces in a manner that mirrors the multiple pieces of narrative we have to work here with and the presentation with it via Anderson’ favorite horizontal camera movements (this time mirroring the sort of cinema he is trying to homage and thereby at the appropriate usage that this trademark has ever had in his filmography) and presents the most controlled aesthetic that Anderson has ever given us (indeed, animation does demand that control is held over by the filmmaker in every aspect). Something, people might argue, feels too controlled in a way that maybe a sincere tale about friendship should be left to organically. It’s maybe the first film where I actually understood people’s issues with Anderson’s characters being a bit distanced from you based on how aware you are of the film’s artifice.

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I still think unfiltered feeling is still there in pockets: from the voice performance of Cranston beginning with a gruff guard slowly transforming into determined warmth, a sense of wounding given to Chief as the film moves on, flashback scenarios establishing Atari’s relationship with Spots, all of which cycle into a payoff by the third act. And of course, every single dog is as adorable looking as can be, whether patchy or pudgy, no matter how many vicious injuries they suffer (indeed Isle of Dogs really reminded me of how unexpectedly violent Anderson’s films can be, though the cartoon-esque scuffling in a ball of dust was amusing no less). But the more I look back on the times I’ve had within the Isle of Dogs, the more I’m left with memories of the first Anderson movie I liked but did not love despite all ingredients being my jam.

I don’t know, maybe Wes is more of a cat person. I mean, look what he made happen to poor Buckley.

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Credibility for its Incredibility

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It’s petulant of me to be so hung up on the reception of Incredibles 2, which as of this writing has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic, as being insufficient to what the movie accomplishes. I have yet to encounter a person who thinks the movie is bad and the worst that I’ve heard is “it’s fine but not as good as the original”. But I do have an inclination of what kind of person is more reserved for their praise for Brad Bird’s sequel to the 2004 animated superhero film The Incredibles and what they look for in movies is frankly different than what I look for.

This is not necessarily to state that the very existent flaws in Incredibles 2 are not to be taken seriously. After all, cinema is to many a storytelling medium first and the sloppiness of Bird’s screenplay in terms of thematic drive and character arc is not nothing. There’s even an explanation for what might have caused such a lapse in narrative delivery: the unofficial story regarding Incredibles 2 taking 14 years to exist is that Bird did not really want to make the movie*. There’s more to the unofficial story, such as the slightly suspicious suggestion that Bird was forced to make the film due to Tomorrowland‘s underperformance (though the screenplay was announced as started a month BEFORE Tomorrowland‘s 2015 premiere). There’s also the official story that Bird was under the impression that he would have one year more of production than he actually got and when Toy Story 4 was pushed back from a release date of 15 June 2018, Incredibles 2 was placed into the empty slot and fast-tracked (Bird has since suggested that he has enough unused material from this motion to make a potential third film, though I doubt he’s in a rush).

So what was Bird able to come up with in that short amount of time? Returning back to the exact spot The Incredibles ended on where the Parr family prepares to face-off against the underground drill driver The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Strongman patriarch Bob aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is able to cause enough collateral damage during the fight to remind us just why superhero activity was still illegal at the end of the last film, which is just the perfect arena for the telecommunications magnate Deaver siblings to enter – super enthusiast pitch man Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and lackadaisical tech genius Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – and suggest a campaign be done to convince the government legalize superheroics again, picking Bob’s stretch wife Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as its face.

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This takes a definite blow to Bob’s ego as he’s left to the domestic demands of raising three children with their own issues: invisible teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is quickly discovered to have a revolving door of powers from flame manipulation to multiplying to laser eyes to dimension hopping to shapeshifting and on and on. It’s apparent Bob does not prove to be as flexible towards house-husband life as Helen did and the presence of a mind-controlling supervillain known as the mysterious Screenslaver taking up most of Helen’s attention means it’s a new world Bob has to traverse alone.

The places Bird’s script goes with this are not very revelatory, including the Screenslaver as an antagonist playing by the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios handbook. There’s a messier handle on communicating whatever themes Incredibles 2 wants to carry, with a lot less incisive commentary on domestic life or its characters (Violet has her own larger conflict that’s part of Bob’s arc, Dash doesn’t really have one except “bad at math”). But it does introduce to us a large amount of superheroes and a bigger world of ramifications than the effective interiority of the first film, effectively scaling upwards in an unwieldy fashion, so the somewhat sloppy manner doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as it should.

Plus, I think the movie is across the board funnier, even when it’s clearly padding the running time with jokes: every scene with Jack-Jack’s now increased role is an absolute delight whether his screen partner is costumer Edna Mode (Bird himself voicing her) or a wily raccoon. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s an obviously bad move on Bob’s part but gives us plenty of cringe humor for Violet. The next generation of superheroes are made up of a variety of gag-ready powers and personalities (including a beautiful exchange regarding the concept of “uncrushing”). Not to say that The Incredibles wasn’t an enjoyable chuckler, but its humor is of a drier sort. This got a whole lot of chesty laughs from yours truly.

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Anyway, if Bird’s disinterest in Incredibles 2 as a project clearly affects the story, it does not affect the actual craft of the film and that’s where the real excitement comes in for yours truly. Pixar, much like any other household animation studio (possibly moreso), has made a name out of slowly improving the technical aspects of their animation. The Incredibles, being an aesthetic particularly based on rejecting photorealism for simple cartoonish character designs and an aesthetic based on 60s pop culture flatness, are a challenge to that ideology and yet Incredibles 2 expands on every single aspect a Pixar film can expand upon: a variety of shot scales, lighting, and image depth explored without losing one inch of the caricaturization of its worlds inhabitants. And it’s certainly not style for style’s sake: a city-sweeping montage set against the Screenslaver’s distorted monologuing earns a gothic noir tone specifically for how the cynicism in its voice plays well with the metropolitan shadows.

A moment followed by the infamous strobe sequence fight scene, which is the unfortunate source of pain for photosensitive viewers but also the moment the film is proudest about Erik Smitt’s lighting, blasting images of dizzying monochrome swirls against silhouettes of action poses, so intensely that it’s hard to imagine it not distressing the viewer in a visceral way, whether or not they suffer from epilepsy. And it’s only one of the many creative action setpieces Bird takes a joy out of constructing. The most popular one: a race to stop a rogue train that brings out all the possible stops for a speeding Elastigirl, looking for new ways to force her contortions and obstacles to make a viewer catch their breath with the speed in which she zips and bends and twists in fluid sweeping wide shots that editor Stephen Schaffer can hardly look away from. It’s a heart-stopping sequence that certainly explains Bob’s egotistical jealousy of his spouse’s capabilities as a superhero, while also establishing that Elastigirl is just so much more fun to watch. My personal favorite is Jack-Jack’s mini Looney Tunes showdown against a raccoon, a kneeslapper distracting us from the primary story arc for a moment yet bouncing as many powers out of a hat as possible for Jack-Jack to get the Raccoon’s eyes wider and wider. Hell, the supporting cast of next-generation superheroes transparently exist to give the Parrs a new source of challenges, particularly Voyd (Sophia Bush) who creates portals that make for interesting antithetical combat to Violet’s force-field defenses.

In general, I think the complaints of those who walked away disappointed and the accolades of others like me who were fascinated with the film come from the same modus operandi: if Bird was going to have to make this movie, he was going to try to make it big. The reason The Incredibles worked so brilliantly as a story was its ability to intimately alternate between its function as superhero tale and domestic drama and Incredibles 2 tries to do that and admittedly fumbles a lot. It can’t accomplish this as smoothly because Bird is interested implying a larger world now: more focus on the worldview of superheroes than how its affects the Parrs, more focus on establishing a gallery of supers rather than giving them the same depth as the Parrs or even family friend Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). But it succeeds at making the world seem wider and promising the potentials of visualizing every single nook and cranie of that world with its craft, filling it with style and bombast. Even Michael Giacchino has found ways to turn his already iconic score into a brand-new snappy soundtrack for the picture (there’s a snare-kick early on during the Underminer bank robbery that got me ready for anything). So if The Incredibles surpasses as a construction of fiction, I still think the choice is clear which movie functions better as popcorn cinema overall and I frankly might go as far to call Incredibles 2 the best Pixar film since Inside Out. Sometimes, more IS more.

*Indeed, this clear reluctance to make Incredibles 2 is a large part of why my expectations for it were pretty low.

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Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons Are No Match for a Good Blaster at Your Side, Kid.

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I don’t think I would be wrong in identifying Solo: A Star Wars Story as the safest picture the franchise has ever seen, but it’s still a bizarre statement to make in the face of its remarkably disappointing financial run on top of other matters. Namely, it is very easy for one to ask the question “who is this for?” regarding Solo, not necessarily because we don’t know who the target audience for this four-quadrant blockbuster is. It’s because frankly nobody asked for it and the response to its announcement has always been very muted reluctance at most. That it’s doing dire work at the box office is more a shock simply because you don’t normally expect “bomb” to appear in the same sentence as “Star Wars” rather than because excitement was in the air.

Anyway, I called Solo safe and I’m sticking by it. After all, it is directed – after much internal strife – by Ron Howard, a director especially known for his lack of a characteristic style unless you call being unable to smooth out an episodic narrative structure a style. And Howard reliably performs that dysfunction here, though he’s not helped by any means with father-and-son team Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s screenplay. It’s a script that was clearly built off of “well, we have several checkpoints we will have to arbitrarily connect the dots to” in regards to the early life of breakout Star Wars character, the cynical smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich): his meeting of hairy Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and slick gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the famous Kessel Run performed in 12 parsecs, the acquisition of his famous ship Millennium Falcon, and a hell of a lot of time devoted to the shiny die that you may or may not have noticed the hanging on the Falcon’s dashboard in the original trilogy.

None of these were particularly things we needed to see and yet they’re spread out in the screenplay over the length of three years in the young man’s life. By which I mean that the first quarter happens where we see Han and his thief partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape the grasp of their shrimp gangster overseer Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) but Qi’ra’s quick re-capture leads Han to try to join the Imperial armed forces in the hopes of earning enough to return to the industrial planet of Corellia and break Qi’ra away from its clutches followed by a big leap in with the title card “THREE YEARS LATER” and the rest of the movie just continues on from there in the form of clunky chapters – a train heist, a mine heist/droid revolt, and a good ol’ bunch of fourth act showdowns – sifted through without anything resembling structural elegance.

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But already Star Wars fans come to a brief roadblock on how to take Solo: A Star Wars Story – they’ve turned Han, previously an ambiguous mercenary archetype with little more to him than that, into a young romantic driven by lost love. For indeed, his desire to reunite with Qi’ra is the driving motivation behind every decision he makes for the rest of the film as he and Chewie tag along with a motley crew of thieves made up of wise quickshooter Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his lover Val (Thandie Newton), and their four-armed alien pilot Rio (Jon Favreau). And that romanticism is a pretty bold shift in characterization to make for one of the most beloved characters in one of the most popular franchises, especially coming from Lawrence Kasdan who is a long-time resident of the Star Wars creative force since 1980. And I have to admit the likeliness that original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were intending to take this sincere earnestness a little more tongue-in-cheek than intended interests me much more than the predictable emotional beats Howard hops into with straight-faced director after Lord and Miller were unceremoniously fired*. But there is a bright side to this: for one thing, it makes it a lot easier to shed any previous associations with the icon and approach the story as its own thing which I’d assume is the best line of inquiry for any Star Wars fan that doesn’t just go to these movies for the unbearably winking fan service (which is present in Solo, including an overabundance of sequel hooks littered all throughout the final minutes. One surprise character cameo only pushes the Disney Star Wars productions into becoming a new Marvel Cinematic Universe).

It also relieves Alden Ehrenreich of any need to attempt mimicry of his famed predecessor Harrison Ford, instead of inputting his personal charm and effortless boyishness as he leads a pretty bubbly ensemble. Glover himself is attempting mimicry of Billy Dee Williams and is getting it right on target. Suotamo, in his second go-round in that fur suit, has already gotten a good hand at the body language Chewie demands while Harrelson is another stand-out in a nitty gritty reluctant mentor, Newton gives tension as an aggressive moll, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings excitement as a very vocally conscious droid. Honestly, the only weak links are the inert Clarke and the unbearable Favreau (who is saddled with the most unspeakable word sandwiches sold as “jokes”) and otherwise the cast is the biggest reason to bother with Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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I would say it is the world-building as well. For sure, there is a pretty wonderful amount of production design going about, like a giant luxury spaceship doubling as the den of bloodthirsty gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, replacing Michael K. Williams sadly) or the implication of Corellia’s involvement in the creation of the galaxy’s fleet of spaceships. And in some cases, that world-building has a full-on involvement in the spectacle: that train heist is easily the best moment in the whole film, where the bandits are on a mini-Snowpiercer unstoppable snow locomotive and stepping into it from different angles dealing with different obstacles, cut with utter frenzy by Pietro Scalia. And the Kessel Run sequence is no slouch either, utilizing the looming entity of the Empire as a fire under the ass of a chase sequence trying to use the freewheeling physicality of space for comic book pulp.

Again, I WOULD say it’s the world-building, except that Solo: A Star Wars Story heartbreakingly looks like hell as some idiot shot the film’s interiors with a murky lack of lighting obscuring characters and a sense of blocking that doesn’t seem aware of the objects in the frame and dared to slap Bradford Young’s name to this. Chewbacca’s entrance is the worst of these things, where the very “Hey it’s Chewie!” close-up where he roars into the camera and is “recognized” is botched by having not lighting on his face at all. It’s just watching undefined shadows and blotches on the screen occasionally*.

The concept of a space opera that just can’t bother looking good, especially with one of the best cinematographers working today in its arsenal, just feels offensive. It is the least a movie as forgettable as Solo could do and it nearly gets so well done with imaginative set, costume, creature, and CGI designs all around but none of that means much if you can barely see it. It doesn’t register a lot of confidence on its makers’ part. Somebody must have told them the odds.

*Between Lord/Miller getting booted for making a comedy and the burial of Star Wars: Detours, Lucasfilm is starting to feel like fan service gatekeepers.
*No less a reliable name than Bilge Ebiri swears it looked better in its Cannes premiere and it’s the theater projections that are messing up and I sincerely believe his experience except… y’know projectors don’t suddenly retroactively light sets and actors.

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Devenomized

With the sincerest apologies to Lu Saitta, who had been waiting on this review for a while ever since she answered a question correctly last summer (I ended up delaying it for a Halloween Mummy marathon that simply never happened), I dedicate this review to her and her unyielding patience (or ability to forget bad writers sometimes offer to write stuff for people).

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The Scorpion King‘s origins as a film in early 2002 are quite a doozy. It is not only a spin-off to the reboot franchise of Universal Studios’ Mummy movies from the turn of the millennium, it is a PREQUEL to the SEQUEL to the REBOOT of Karl Freund’s 1932 masterpiece. Less than a year had passed between the April 2001 premiere of The Mummy Returns and the April 2002 release of The Scorpion King, meaning that Universal Studios and WWF Entertainment fast-tracked the production of the origin story on a character who spent more screentime as CGI that already looked video game-like back then in the hopes that he would prove extremely popular in the wake of The Mummy Returns‘ success (not expecting it to make slightly less than its predecessor). This film is the purest form of synergy I can possibly imagine.

The Scorpion King made enough of a pretty penny for the studios to not regret making the movie, but it’s very likely not on the merit of the character’s appeal and more the actor who portrayed him. For The Scorpion King was essentially THE role that began building Dwayne Johnson’s future movie star status from his acquired superstardom as a wrestler for WWE (formerly WWF) under the ring name The Rock, the name which the actor was billed as*.

Now, despite the mercenary intentions that animated the production, there’s little conflict in me declaring The Scorpion King the “best” of the four Mummy reboot films (ignoring the multitudes of Direct-to-Video releases WWE milked), but that is not a tall order. It already has the significant upgrade of moving from the dashing enough and overeager but still out of his league Brendan Fraser to The Rock, who hadn’t yet harnessed his full charisma as a screen persona but is remarkably confident at being a brawny barbarian given that it only requires fierce and mean looks while swinging and grappling no different than he did in the ring. He plays right along with the sword-and-sandals set he’s inhabiting, aided largely by the fact that this time he actually gets to be in the movie with his legs attached.

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Yes, the Rock’s just the right sort of arch tan-muscled masculine tower in which to build a very boilerplate story of The Scorpion King’s original identity: Mathayus (The Rock, duh!), last of the Akkadians after witnessing his brothers’ betrayal and slaughter during their mission to assassinate the warlord Memnon (Steven Brand)’s sorcerer that’s been ensuring his conquest of Mesopotamia. This mission is only further complicated by the discovery that the mark is in fact an attractive sorcerESS given the obvious name of Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and, after 30 minutes of escaping and taking another go at killing her without being distracted by her beauty (made harder Mathayus by the fact that his second ambush happens to be while she’s naked), discovering her to be a hostage of Memnon and decides to escape with her into the hot desert sun without much of a plan except to stay as far out of Memnon’s grasp as possible and smolder at each other, despite Cassandra’s clairvoyance promising certain doom for Mathayus’ valiant actions.

The screenplay by Stephen Sommers (who directed the previous Mummy films), William Osborne, and David Hayter (HEY KIDS, SOLID SNAKE!) meanders with betrayal towards its desire to fit enough plot and qualify as a feature without wanting to give unnecessary depth to its characters (it is somewhat dedicated to reminding us of Memnon’s formidability, probably because Brand has to pretend to give the Rock a good fight), but – barring the fact that Mathayus could have learned everything he learned about Cassandra well before the things he had to go through – it gets to where it needs to be without wearing out its welcome. There is the irresistible observation that placing this is the 2800s BC and identifying Mathayus as an Akkadian implies the events of the film to lead into the Akkadian Empire, but his name is Mathayus instead of Sargon and there’s the ahistorical claim that he’s literally the last survivor of the race. And the setting of the film being in the Biblical city of Gomorrah, famously destroyed long before by God in the Book of Genesis. And the fact that the Mummy Returns presented The Scorpion King as a bloodthirsty ruthless tyrant and here he’s a charmingly scrappy rogue. But y’know, I’m feeling generous.

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The Scorpion King also makes the significant upgrade of replacing the computer-effects-dependent glutton Sommers. Now, we have Chuck Russell who doesn’t have much in the way of control of tone (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) but luckily The Scorpion King doesn’t demand much in the way of shifting tone. It’s essentially a middle-tier feature-length episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, swashbuckler all the way down with occasional indulgence in extra badass star vehicle (and one I’d say Russell qualified for based on the Jason and the Argonauts-esque skeleton battle at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). Sure, there’s a tiny bit of comic overtones but they’re mostly pulled in by the quicksand-like gravity of the wily horse thief sidekick Arpid (Oscar winner Grant Heslov and if you’ve seen The Scorpion King, you do not need me to tell you that the Oscar was not for Acting), pushing them to the side of a scene rather than making them interrupt any of the action. Even before The Rock was an ACTOR, you could hardly upstage the dude with a clown.

Russell’s main strength is competently putting together setpiece after setpiece until the movie runs out of time (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) and The Scorpion King bats a decent enough average to breeze on its 92 minute runtime as Russell’s shortest film. Not that some of them aren’t ruthlessly cut to confusion, such as the middle sequence where Mathayus returns to Memnon’s stronghold and escapes with Cassandra (somewhat a big setpiece made out of smaller setpieces, including the most blatant Indiana Jones rip-off in a franchise that spent most of its time ripping those movies off). But the grand majority of them have a Raimi-esque theatricality to them based on how “oh this really metal thing happens where the swords are on fire” and “then this really metal thing happens where he tosses a guy in the way of a tomahawk”. It’s all in the service of making The Rock look cool and having a coherent or interesting style is merely incidental. If there is to be one major highlight, I would say it’s a battle during the escape in which Mathayus leads the guards into a cave during a sandstorm, using the limited shafts of light and a panning soundtrack to impose on the viewer the same sort of frightened confusion towards our hero’s guerilla tactics as the head guard while his men are effortlessly killed (there is one “Are you fucking kidding me?” moment where a guard gets swallowed by quicksand and then ANOTHER idiot guard steps into the same quicksand after seeing the guard die that way and no surprise at HIS fate).

So, is the movie successful at being quality entertainment? I don’t know. The seams are pretty much there. This movie looks its budget, with less characteristic production design than its predecessors and much dodgier CGI including a sequence where The Rock steps through a wall of fire and it separates as though it were a curtain. But Russell makes quick, tight work out of a script that doesn’t entirely know where it’s going and the Rock is one of several archetypes portrayed by a capable cast (including Bernard Hill as an absent-minded professor and the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the big burly rival turned ally). It all feels barely adequate to me and I’m hardly going to look back on it after tonight, but y’know the saying about one’s person’s discardings is another one’s treasures. That is how artifacts get made, even ones from the early 2000s.

*You will notice that some folks such as myself who grew up in that wonderful time in the 1990s have trouble shaking off calling him by The Rock, even though he’s moved on from that brand. I think I mark the line at being born in 1998 as my sister was and strictly refers to him as Dwayne Johnson without much recognizing him for his wrestling origins.

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L.O.L. – ¡Loser on Line! (Hate the Player, Hate the Game)

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So I can’t figure out if it would be more ethical to lay out my problems with the concept of Ready Player One on the floor now or to keep them to myself and pretend I’m not entering the movie with any pre-existing biases and I just figure I may as well come clean so whoever wants a shining review (pun unintended) will be let down easy.

I have never read Ernest Cline’s original novel of which Zak Penn based his screenplay on, but from what I understand of it (and Cline) it sounds shallow and emblematic of everything I am unimpressed with regarding “nostalgia as token” storytelling, especially 1980s nostalgia. And to be quite honest, I feel like Penn’s screenplay and parts of director Steven Spielberg’s storytelling retains a lot of the things that make the concept abhorrent to me: the strict focus on male-centric fan culture elements, the shallow background tokenism of minorities as support to the conventionally attractive white characters being the only ones with depth afforded to them (and even then, not by much), the gatekeeping moments where the villain is coded so because he doesn’t have enough John Hughes knowledge (including the now much-mocked line of “a fanboy can always tell a hater”), the antithetical ignoring of certain properties’ core substance to use them as bald action figures bashing against each other (most notably, the famously anti-violence The Iron Giant – created by a character whose only traits that aren’t a spoiler are their love for violent shoot ’em ups and their gearhead intelligence and the character is used accordingly).

None of those things are film-damning to my mind, honestly. It just means I stepped into Ready Player One with little faith to begin with, enough to overshadow my usual faith in Spielberg delivering another great piece of zippy popcorn entertainment despite the premise being trying desperately to sell the kind of escape a person can have in pop culture and video games. Probably because the movie doesn’t know whether or not it wants to also be a doomed look into a society so dependent on escaping reality that it falls apart and that’s honestly the more compelling area of the film to me.

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That video game that society is escaping into is called the OASIS, an open-world virtual reality environment where folks have invested so very much of their time and finances to the point of nationwide (at least) dystopia. This environment is represented with two major characteristics: first, motion-captured computer-animated scenes by Industrial Light and Magic that’s understandably “poor” in the way video game graphics would be but also filled with dazzling lighting effects for an imagination playbox as opposed to the last time Spielberg played with this toolbox in the fully animated The Adventures of Tintin. Second, OASIS is filled with a nauseating amount of pop culture references beyond the frequent name-dropping that would occur in character design, set design, vehicle design, and even soundtrack – mostly with wide-eyed shallow love for the 1980s. Which… ok, I guess.

It is completely believable that an unlimited sandbox world would be quickly overpopulated with pop cultures models rather than unique designs or a desire to exude personality, in case we forget we essentially have the OASIS in existence in real as VRChat and damned if you don’t come across a million anime characters and Ugandan Knuckles in those worlds. Somehow instead of the world being bitter about the ruined economical state against the creators of the game, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), they are idolized to the point that when Halliday abruptly announces his death in a pre-recorded stream, he also announces an easter egg hidden deep within the game – the prize of finding it being his entire estate including total control of the OASIS.

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Obviously that would attract the attention of a huge amount of players, including ones commissioned by the shadowy commercial corporation Innovative Online Industries and their apparently unimaginative profit-driven CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson), who is somehow able to make his choice of AI as himself except Thanos-color and -body type, desiring to turn the OASIS into a giant marketing platform that would feel like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference of a plot point if it wasn’t obvious this movie would telegraphing the hell out of such an intentional decision. It also grabs the attention of a ragtag group of egg hunters, including blue elf avatar Parzival and his Ohio teen player Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Watts’ hunt leads into digging deeper into the tragic hermit life of Halliday for several clues to help him, gun-lugging orc Aech, Ninja Sho, Samurai Daito, and the mysterious and determined similarly elfen avatar except pink named Art3mis.

And for being the major draw of the movie, it just feels so… bored of its own spectacle. There’s no true investment in most of the decisions on what reference to drop in the film, no giddy excitement like we know Spielberg to shake out of us except within a certain giant battle in the climax of the film and a certain second act challenge that’s an homage to a certain famous filmmaker friend of Spielberg’s right up until they add dancing and floating zombies. Otherwise, it’s no slouch but it’s no more an impressive fully-animated video game landscape than TRON: Legacy, which had character and felt a lot more solid and sleek in a manner that’s much more interesting to watch. Meanwhile, Ready Player One feels like a kid playing with actions figures, but not in an excited joyous way. More like a kid who doesn’t want his little brother to touch them. All the more so by the reluctance Spielberg openly had for referencing his own work, something that’s certainly valiant and humble but wrong-headed when his work defined the era that Cline fetishized.

In any case, it’s still a Spielberg film and it takes a lot of work for one of those to not at least have an efficient sense of pacing (something especially impressive given the 140 minutes it has to move through) and it even manages to give that time some compelling content in the form of the live-action scenes. They’re superior to the animated Family Guy skit of a plotline in every way: Mendelsohn’s performance is so much more interesting when we’re actually watching him flopsweat about (it’s a lesser version of his work in Rogue One but better version of him than The Dark Knight Rises), the design of the dystopian Columbus, Ohio as a stack of trailers looking Babel-esque is able to work at establishing the dive in class for its inhabitants without feeling like miserablism, and most of all, we get to see more of Halliday. It’s a role which Rylance is wildly overqualified to play but something he approaches with lovable earnestness – he takes the social blocks Halliday appears to have and twists them into either vulnerable windows of his fears of social interaction or truly alienating and difficult resentment depending on what the scene asks. In Bridge of Spies, Rylance came across as the least Spielberg-ian entity, but here he is the most Spielberg-ian element of all: a Willy Wonka of sorts that was unprepared to deal with real life with a downfall the movie treats with honesty but not harshness. It is the closest thing Ready Player One comes to feeling like it has a soul and so if you hold tight to the glimpses of Halliday like I did, you might just find yourself at the end of the ride quicker than you expected.

They do have Battle Toads, though. So passing grade.

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The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

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I honestly don’t know who missed which memo on the set of Rampage.

Whether or not director Brad Peyton and stay Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson missed the memo that a movie about dangerous animals turning giant by the abominable actions of science and turning a major metropolis into an utter ruin is not really a premise one needs to sacrifice an immense amount of entertainment and fun for. And mind you, this is hardly the first time they made this mistake or the worst perpetration of this tonal mishap. The stone-faced sobriety with which their previous collaboration San Andreas portrayed the devastating earthquakes The Rock was escaping makes Rampage look like Singin’ in the Rain. And yet you can get away with that sort of demeanor on the very real threat of a natural disaster. A gang of giants – ape, wolf, and crocodile – crushing a metropolis is inherently ridiculous. While it does well to give your film some sense of in-film logical grounding – which I assume is the reason this movie chose to have them actual animals who are exposed to a chemical rather than humans transformed into the animals as in the video game series it’s based on – it does not mean every character who isn’t played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan has to go unsmiling while the shit is hitting the fan. Plus, San Andreas has much more consistent and weighty visual effects than Rampage‘s frequently poorly composed animals and that leads to the second hypothetical memo.

Or if whoever was in charge of the major special effect in the film – the growing albino gorilla George (Jason Liles in mo-cap) whom Johnson’s primatologist character Davis Okoye cares for and raises – realized that he was bringing about an Adam Sandler character into a movie very certain on turning that character into something to fear for about 2/3 of its runtime. While the right idea is clearly in the makers’ mind, to both have some sense of levity and lean towards giving us a character that will hurt us to watch turn into a mindless monster, their execution is practically diving into Seth MacFarlane territory. With his constant usage of frat boy jokes to frequently undermine Rampage‘s sincerity (an extended usage of the middle finger, a finger-into-fist sign of inquiry), George would look right at home as the inarticulate best friend to Ted, if only Ted as a character wasn’t so well animated that he would make George look worse than he already does in direct juxtaposition. Either way, George and The Rock are clearly not starring in the same movie.

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These are not good looking giant animals y’all, living on an entirely different plane from the rest of their environments and often interacting with humans as though there is either a sheet of glass separating them or their aim is just awful when it comes to snatching them into their jaws. This is certainly covered up a whole lot better in the dusty rubble of Chicago or the sunlight cutting forestations which is probably why George’s gigantic co-stars Ralph the Wolf and Lizzie the Croc (Ralph is named, Lizzie is not – these are names I got from the games) fare significantly better in my memory than any apes in the film. Lizzie in particular is the standout, proving that the animators almost certainly saw another giant reptile film and so had a handy basis on how to make the crocodile feel dense and make the earth rumble with each step it takes. She also only really has to exist in the third act while we follow George and Ralph’s travels to Chicago instead.

Whether or not you read whatever the unholy fuck is the barely rendered… I don’t know, I think it’s a rat with movements that are unconvincing even in the context of zero-g space. How you read opening Rampage with that would be up to you: it could either be the movie just getting its worst CGI out of the way or it could be an early indication that it’s not a movie that could effectively commit to its one job of providing BIG CONVINCING monsters for its popcorn movie. I think it’s both on top of earlier elaborating what was going to be the only elements that knew what kind of dumb matinee fare was this movie’s best case scenario: an occasional indulgence in camera movement to give a little more surrounding character to the chaotic scenarios (an imploding space station in this case, a crashing cargo plane later on, and the climactic destruction of Chicago), a composer in Andrew Lockington that’s only interested in finding the most peril-rich clichés in movie music to indulge in, and a supporting cast mostly qualified to treat this as scientifically as Deep Blue Sea – in this particular scene, introducing to us in voice-only antagonist Energyne CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman), who even without seeing her face can easily have temperature guessed into the below zeros.

When we do see her face, Åkerman along with Jake Lacy as Wyden’s impotent brother Brett make a punchy duo of recognizable corporate evil as Lacy gives nervy cartoon energy to Brett’s stupidity without a trace of inner logic beyond “I don’t wanna go to prison!”. Åkerman meanwhile is like what somebody’s impression of a fun Louise Fletcher character would be and her straight-faced ability to still sell on every pointedly evil thing she says and does makes it feel like the character only uses financial terms as replacement for “EVIIIIIIILLLL” spitting out of her lips as they watch and approve of their research landing on Earth and their work leading to devastated trails of carnage*.

And of course, in the meantime, Jeffrey Dean Morgan struts in as a government agent with the most unconvincing Texan drawl a man could put on, refusing to stand up even slightly straight, and treating the mid-film expositional dump he puts upon Okoye and Naomie Harris’ fired Energyne Dr. Kate Caldwell like the best chance to chew up all the possible scenery he can consume, making him a fellow valiant presence attempting to right up the ship sunk by Peyton’s sobriety to the material. Unfortunately, Morgan is not in charge of the movie nor his evildoer co-stars. Peyton and The Rock’s earnestness to the material is well-meaning but a downfall to a movie that shouldn’t need to be earnest to be entertaining and would probably do better with the low-quality of the animals, its main draw, to have the borderline silliness of a Roger Corman flick than its unironic insistence that yes… Rampage expects you to take these badly animated inserts as seriously as the Rock does.

*Also they have an arcade rack of the original game Rampage in their very professional high-rise office sticking out, implying that the game exists in this film and they were inspired by it for their Project Rampage. Which means they have wildly good aim and/or odds when they landed on the three animals of the game AND that ape would be named George AND that internet conspiracy theorists would name the wolf Ralph.

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A New Hope

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Obviously “name the scene that changed the game of cinema” is way too broad an accomplishment to narrow down, but when deciding on the three major moments that totally transformed the art form in my eyes, I settle on the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, the mid-film death of Marion Crane in Psycho, and the opening shot of Star Wars. And while the other two describe a scene that impacted me on an intellectual level, only the Star Wars sequence hit me on a gut eye-widening level even when I first watched it – which was, for the record, on a TV screen in the 1990s at a toy store that probably was one of the much edited Special Editions (and obviously, I’m not a caveman… at this point, I only go Despecialized or bust).

Anyway, that shot alone to remind you if you’ve seen Star Wars, because you almost certainly have (and if not, don’t both reading this review because I won’t really try to bring you up to speed and will not hold back on the spoilers), is a rebel cruiser slowly but desperately crawling above our heads in a speed that tells us enough with its blasts that it is being followed. We see in the same shot shortly after what is following it: this Goliath prism of forebodingly bleached technology with the very appropriate name of the Star Destroyer completely eating up the screen too quickly for us to prepare for its entrance, let alone have any hope that this cruiser will escape its clutches. I mean, describing it doesn’t work, you gotta see it to believe it.

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It’s like “yep… that’s a spaceship alrigh– no wait, THAAAAT’S a spaceship.” It’s more than just an incredible opening move by writer/director George Lucas to establish the dominance and antagonism of the evil Empire in less than a minute. It is in my humble opinion the most accomplished work of visual effects to date. It’s a challenge to popcorn cinema since Star Wars first opened on 25 May 1977 to try to surpass the scale and tangibility of this fantastical moment of bleeding edge technical storytelling. While visual effects have only evolved further and further down the line, nothing in my eyes has made good on the challenge (though I will say the gap in evolution between 2001: A Space Odyssey and this doesn’t feel that large). Even the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park or Gollum from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feel like distant runner-ups compared to how that Star Destroyer takes me aback if I give myself enough time between viewings of Star Wars.

I mean, one doesn’t really need to recount the ways that Star Wars had affected the filmgoing sphere since it dropped like a proton torpedoes. It’s practically a joke among “sophisticated” (read: sticks-up-their-asses) cinephilia circles that the movie killed cinema along with Jaws and, sure, the sudden focus it brought in to ambitious bombastic narratively and thematically unchallenging spectacle into the 1980s is irrevocable after the thoughtful auteur-driven 1970s New Hollywood movement. But it’s very easy to fall for that spectacle when it’s this refined and bleeding edge, capable of retaining its ability to create plausible worlds to suck its audience in even 41 years after the fact. And it is apparently even easier to forget that it gets to accomplish that by having its designs tap into the malaise of New Hollywood and the disillusion of the post-Vietnam late 1970s, making it no less a bonafide member of the New Hollywood movement than Lucas’ previous two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

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I mean, take a look at the beginnings of Tatooine farmboy-turned-hero Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) story: he lives in the middle of nowhere, just a dried desert planet so empty that just watching TWO FUCKING SUNS feels like a mundane way to vent out his boredom. And mind you, those two suns are yet another brilliant showcase of Lucas’ visual storytelling… the way Luke faces out towards the horizon telling us of the potential journeys ahead of his hopes of escape, the rising sun being the most basic of “this is the beginning of something life-changing” metaphors.

But anyway, this is diverging how Tatooine looks like it sucks, right? Because it does – the film does nothing to dress up the fatigue of the Tunisian desert it was shot in. The script by Lucas spends a little less than an hour lying inside this godforsaken sandy mass that occasionally has dunes and domes popping out from under its surface making Skywalker feel no less restless about the lack of direction in his life as any of the teenagers from American Graffiti, where Lucas seems to tap into the youthful yearning of such a hero. And mind you, the vehicles which American Graffiti revolves around (no wonder Lucas was so fascinated with having John Dykstra bring some technological logic to the models) are not glamorous but they are a sight better looking than the slim hovercraft speeder he rides around that looks more like the wheels fell off than any actual advancement was made or the rusted up massive maroon Sandcrawler from which Skywalker picks up protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) that take him onto his impromptu journey with the guiding old hermit Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the grasp of the Empire’s main enforcers, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones; physically played by David Prowse).

And I mean, from the moment he arrives, the gilded C-3PO is the best looking thing on Tatooine and his paint is practically fading off his body as is. When the escape pilots bad boy Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) unveil their bucket of bolts the Millennium Falcon, it’s a bulky disc of a thing that makes Ben and Luke’s initial doubts understandable (though this is maybe not a feeling that translates well into the new generation, given how the Falcon is now the most beloved ship in the entire fandom). Even once they’re off that planet, the only other major locations in the film are either the clearly unstable Rebel Base looking more commandeered than fixtured within the ruins they seek quarter in and the Death Star. And my oh my does the Death Star look sterile and unwelcoming from the aged chrome that surrounds its hallways from top to bottom to the very designs of its space Nazi rebels, not least of all Vader himself sweeping through corners in a towering posture as Jones gives cold delivery to every single word he utters as he crushes throats in midair with the power of the Force.

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It’s a miracle the film works so well as unambiguous entertainment despite living in a world that’s not as fascinated with its own existence as we are, thanks to John Barry probably deciding to use the limited budget 20th Century Fox afforded this project to avoid glamorizing the futurism Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz envisioned and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor refusing to ease up on the grain of the film stock, practically timestamping it within 1977. And I’m sure Barry had more budget to work with than costume designer Michael Kaplan, who wisely knew how to use the texture and shade of the rags he put atop of most of the characters to signify their humble beginnings (and of course Leia doesn’t have a complex costume herself and yet the clean clarity of her white dress tells all about her hierarchy above our plucky heroes) while color-coding the alignments of our cast into good whites and evil blacks (with Vader the blackest of all, practically shining with a shadow of a cape following him). And of course, Tatooine wouldn’t be transformed without the landscape shots of second-unit photographers being the accomplished soon-to-be-household names of Tak Fujitmoto and Carole Ballard.

But my oh my, here I am establishing how accomplished visually Star Wars is as a production and I never truly got around to talking about how amazing it sounded. Because if there’s one name more attached to Star Wars than anybody except Lucas himself, it’s the incredible composer John Williams and Williams takes this opportunity to truly put the “opera” in “space opera”. Even against the “Master of Manipulative Schmaltz” Steven Spielberg, the music Williams puts into Star Wars might very well qualify as the most audience-directing work he’s done in his entire career, largely through the not-so-secret weapon of leitmotifs he adopted from the structure of operas so that we could quickly associate certain musical phrases with characters and events so that when they pop up now and again we have a sort of mapping of emotions and thoughts to guide us through story beats. Remember that duel suns thing I mentioned above and how mundane it is: we know that because of Luke’s emotions in the scene prior, the way he’s unimpressed with everything, and frankly the lack of emotiveness to Hamill’s look at the sunrise but Williams is not telling us that’s what the moment is: he’s all about driving the longing of the horizon deep into the heart of the viewer with his famous “binary sunset” theme and by god does it overpower us anyway alongside the fact that Luke may have seen a binary sunset before, but we sure as hell haven’t.

And even after Williams is the soundscape Ben Burtt designed for this universe. R2-D2 for instance famously only speaks in beeps and whistles (C-3PO is the anglicized one of the pairing) and Burtt’s intuitive enough about the range of sounds to give R2 a true identity and personality enough to recognize him as a little trouble-maker full of energy is a miracle of character creation simply from knowing what sounds can communicate that. Or the lasers, not least of which the trance-like neutrality of the fucking laser sword lightsabers or the excitement of the crackling and spitting those things make when they’re in contact, something to make the otherwise frankly boring battle between Vader and Ben feel more violent and charged. Burtt and Williams collectively are the best things Star Wars have going for it and the unsung creators of an audial world that allowed already transporting visuals to occupy our hearts in a primal invisible way, answering why 1/4 of its 6 Oscars went for its sound and music (the others being Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing).

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Which leaves the misfortune of having to recognize that these accomplishments in craft are given the task of carrying less than stellar writing and acting. The writing itself is easier to pinpoint. It is the opinion of yours truly that the scripts of every Star Wars film are always the weakest link and the 1977 original certainly gave a decent enough jump start to that tradition, but its adherence to the cliché Hero’s Journey of Campbell that Lucas espoused so highly is hardly criminal in itself and it’s certainly a broad line for which Williams to follow and amplify through his music. It’s the dialogue: excusable maybe to those who have no problems with in-universe kludges of proper nouns, but it’s all chewy and clunky when the cast has to use those nouns and unsubtle direct plot-plodding when they don’t. The fact that the majority of the cast feel unconvinced with the diatribes on the Force and the Empire that they have to deliver makes it all so much less believable and truly makes Williams’ work cut out for him.

Which may as well segue to the cast, but at least they do have their high points: for one thing, Cushing’s gaunt grey-haired skull-like visage already does well enough to communicate his somber wickedness and then he has to add a sort of smacking sneer to his threats and interrogations that blow my mind how he can accomplish that without even the shadow of a smile cracking. Then there’s all the non-verbal characters: Mayhew and Baker able to use body language in their limited roles to feel friendly and in some cases scene-stealing. And while I understand Guinness’ famous hatred of Star Wars, he’s frankly one of the best actors in the world and can turn even a expositioning old man like Ben into a viable source of guidance to what our heroes objectives are and the possibilities they can achieve with the help of the force. And frankly, between Guinness here and Hamill in the later film The Last Jedi, it’s quite possible that cynical jaded actors who have doubt about the direction of their characters make for the best aged and tired performances of long-lost heroes trying to prepare their successors for what is to come.

Sadly, Hamill does not accomplish anything as brilliant as The Last Jedi here: he is frankly wan and whiny in a petulant off-putting way, like a grown child that doesn’t make for a compelling surrogate to the audience. And meanwhile, none of his major co-stars Ford or Fisher do as well either: Fisher’s pronunciation of words between her teeth is so naggingly conscious that it feels like a college freshman trying to do an overexaggerated British accent on stage and Ford’s cockiness is quite honestly the best out of the three but doesn’t sell one bit on the moral ambiguity we’re supposed to buy from the character before his big saving return in the climax through the trenches. I’d probably prefer to say more about their performances when I get to the sequels where they improve significantly, because wallowing in a trio of amateur actors at the beginning of their careers feels quite mean.

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Let’s instead return to what makes me high off of Star Wars and choose the afore-mentioned trench run climax as a brilliant metaphor to how the experience of Star Wars shakes me as a viewer. Luke’s rushing through all these details surrounding him deep on the surface of the Death Star and there’s so much thought put into their construction and grounding them all within the same universe and yet he barely recognizes them nor do we. We’re just on the ecstasy of the speed in which we’re exploring this surface towards our destination. Meanwhile, three crooked looking eyeball-esque TIE fighters are on his tail with Vader closing in and it brings a sense of danger and urgency to scene beyond everything else. And then there’s the moment where we hear Guinness’ warm voice calm Luke and us down and re-assure us that this is a story where we know the ending and that the good guys will prevail, the certainty that gives Luke confidence to abandon the missile-guiding system, the cheeriness that accompanies Solo’s entrance as he gets the TIE fighters off of Luke, and most of all the exhilaration we have at witnessing Luke make a bullseye at the ventilation shaft, punctuated by the explosive blast of the Death Star’s destruction just as Luke zooms away.

So many different emotions communicated to us at lightning speed thanks to the factors all collected and arranged by the editors Marcia Lucas (George’s former wife), Paul Hirsch, and Richard Chew. And all with the trust and direction of Lucas, a man who probably later on invited ridicule for his overwhelming inability to tell a complex or nuanced story, but for now carried an ambitious desire to create some semblance of new worlds, even out of a limited number of locations and none of them as fantastical as one would think, and transport us there. And frankly, Star Wars isn’t a story that needs nuance or complexity. The attempt to input it feels like the failing of most Star Wars movies I’m not fond of. Sometimes, you can provide intelligent popcorn cinema simply by trusting the sounds and designs to magnify the emotions the story can barely give us and Star Wars does that in such a kinetic way that I can’t imagine how anybody could leave it feeling unstimulated.

It lifts me up and takes me back a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

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Actually, Chewbacca deserves a medal. Fuck this movie, it’s the worst.