Over the Moon

A little prelude: For years I’ve been playing with the idea of a video essay series, but we do not have enough time to do everything we’d like to do in our lives. What follows is basically what I’ve intended as one of the first batch of those videos so don’t be surprised if in the future I finally find myself with the free time to put them together and I lazily recycle this post for that video.

A further little prelude: I am aware that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is among the most beloved and popular films by that most beloved populist of cinema Steven Spielberg. It would have to be: it was the highest-grossing picture of all-time until Spielberg decided to make dinosaurs walk the Earth and its titular alien character is one of the quintessential icons of pop culture in the 1980s. And yet I never encountered very much of that love in my personal life: I certainly adored the movie since I first saw it at 10-years-old and I’ve seen the movie numerous times in cinemas but while seeking out people in my life who share my affinity for the movie, I come up short. Even when I took a course in film school on the films of Spielberg, the professor just straight up dismissed that movie. So objectively it’s the case that E.T. does not need defending, but in my experience… that movie gets endlessly shrugged off. Maybe I keep terrible company.

The most obvious point of criticism is that it is the most blatantly sentimental and emotionally manipulative movie of Spielberg’s, a showcase of all his most characteristic and romantic saccharine moods. And well… yes, of course, it is. Art functions that way: it is meant to provoke a response out of you and a majority of that art (particularly cinema) already has an specific reaction it considers ideal to itself. Maybe that’s not a strong excuse if it’s not your flavor and Odin knows I have my share of movies that I completely reject their cloying approach to it. But I consider Spielberg to be among the best storytellers of the modern age because he knows the exact right arrangement of ingredients to get the most profound passionate reflexes out of my heart and when it’s firing on as many cylinders as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial does, I can’t intellectually resist that. I am wholly vulnerable and in awe of the power Spielberg flexes in making one of the ultimate emotional experiences in all of film.

What I can try to do intellectually is to break down how I believe it works, but first of course the acknowledgement on what E.T. is for those who have lived under a rock for the last 40 years: Written by Melissa Mathison and very clearly owned by Spielberg the whole way through, the screenplay begins with a scouting group of aliens that land quietly in a forest outside of Los Angeles. Ostensibly this landing was not quiet enough to avoid government officials chasing back into the ship and off the ground, leaving behind one unlucky member who rushes into the suburbs and is found by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). As Elliott gives shelter to the creature – whom is named E.T., of course – we learn about his broken homelife with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), baby sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and recently divorced mother Mary (Dee Wallace). Such a life has left Elliott with an unspoken empty feeling that’s filled by E.T.’s friendship with him, a bond that appears be psychically compelled. Still E.T. of course is not on this planet to stay and Elliott with his family and friends assist to get E.T. in contact with his ship.

That magical friendship connection at the center of the movie is its own awareness of what it’s doing: it’s telling us how to feel in every moment, through a variety of strategies all of them successful to me. This begins with Elliott’s perspective and the way the movie manages to align with him. Cinematographer Allen Daviau – in the first of his three collaborations with Spielberg – fills the movie with all sorts of hazy exterior atmospheres whether the soft darkness of the forest, the foggy light of the backyard, or the sleepy oranges of an autumn sunset (this happens to have my second favorite Halloween sequence in any movie not about the holiday for the reason of those colors, the first place prize going to Meet Me in St. Louis). There’s a whole lot of beautiful sunset and night skies captured unlike anything in Spielberg’s filmography in their comforting shimmering darkness. But the secret weapon of his camerawork is how much of it remains eye level with Elliott, most impressively in the long takes where a variety of angles will need to be taken to intersect past Elliott’s head to reach the subject he’s looking at (the biggest reason I wish I could have made this a video essay: there’s a specific shot about a quarter into the film that demonstrates this impeccably, where E.T. is obscured and covered but Elliott if looking at an empty door frame and then following his hands over a work bench). It is perhaps responsible for being the most dignified a child’s perspective could be without losing that character’s inexperience or condescending to Elliott as an expressive human being, inviting us to see the world from his level.

What I really didn’t recognize until the most recent watch (the 40th anniversary IMAX re-release in August) is how Spielberg and Daviau use that camera level technique to properly shift between human perspectives. Because certainly Elliott is the main protagonist but E.T. turns out to be a film also dedicated to how this one little creature impresses upon every member of that family (all of whom are meeting Thomas’ level in sophisticated performances – Wallace’s labored maternal tension is my pick for best-in-show but I wouldn’t also hesitate in claiming Gertie’s eager fascination is my favorite performance in Barrymore’s life-long career). In the below clip, you can easily tell by eye levels who is taking over this wildly variable sequence as constructed by the wise measures of Carol Littleton’s editing – the best of Spielberg’s many “dinner” sequences, which is a thing he does great and often, it turns out – from Elliott and Michael’s argument to Gertie’s earnest repetition of what’s said to Mary’s attempt to control things and the spot where it all collapses.

Anyway, that was a lot of rambling about only one of the major tools Spielberg has in his arsenal to control the viewer’s emotions in synchronicity with Elliott. And it’s wild how many of those words spared describing E.T. himself as designed by Carlo Rambaldi. Rambaldi in all his wisdom made an absolutely ugly creature whose ugliness is in the right gauge to make him absolutely adorable in his extended neck, his squat body, and his marvelous large eyes. Those eyes are easily the closest this creature comes to expressiveness and it’s never anything other than unthreatening in the relaxed open-and-close of his eye lids combined with his lazy smile and piercing blue eyes. It is not impossible to recognize how such a pudgy thing could appeal to children in its benign weirdness even before we see the magic of that glowing finger and in turn to the credit of Rambaldi’s animatronic puppet and the imagination of the child cast to work together as scene partners.

But just as there’s only so far we can get before having to talk about the titular entity in E.T., it is impossible to discuss a Spielberg film from his most successful era between the late 70s and early 80s without talking about the man behind the music: John Williams, who used many of Spielberg’s productions to craft together his most iconic melodies and E.T. is no exception. In fact, much like one can say that Star Wars is emotionally driven by Williams more than anything, it’s no doubt that E.T.‘s emotional tenor is determined by Williams’ compositions and this was legendarily something Spielberg recognized to the point of having the climax from the famous bicycle chase on to the final cut to black entirely re-edited AROUND Williams’ score rather than force Williams to compose to the film’s rhythm. This turned out to be the perfect directorial call to allow Williams the grounding to carry all the thrills and awe and sensations of that very packed finale without sounding like the music is straining one bit, letting its spirited themes build up to a climax that wallops me. The last few minutes of quiet in the final shots before the last note is blasted is probably what I find most disarming as I try collect myself in the dark of the credits against sprinkling piano notes playing. In those final moments, Williams and Littleton as collaborators truly hit the sweet spot between triumph of helping your friend and the tragic sadness that they will now leave your life in a beautiful powerful way.

And if I could backtrack a bit, just as Williams is the star of those big emotions of that finale, the place-setting he makes with the first half of the film is responsible for setting us up for that intense sequence of sounds. Indeed, he helps guide us through Elliott and E.T.’s kindred recognition that they have a companion to help their lonely souls find their place again. The first hour finds Williams under the sequences shaping tonal moods rather than letting coalesce into a musical vocabulary, that’s what the action-packed second hour is for.

Somehow it doesn’t feel like I’m ruining the trick by recognizing these components to Spielberg’s direct aim into the viewer’s core. Even when I’m thinking about Daviau, Littleton, Rambaldi, and Williams’ contributions during my later adult watches, the full picture still remains intact and sophisticated even knowing the hands behind the veil. That’s a picture about a specific group of people failing to connect and learning by the luck of a small alien who landed into their lives, specifically able to align the perspective of an isolated young boy and a divorced mother and even a distanced government functionary (as I must give it up to one more cast member: Peter Coyote is probably the closest we come to an antagonist** in the film but his interrogations are so concerned and betray a history of fascination that generously give him as much sympathy as any other character) with limitless grace. And that fluidity through which E.T. uses its construction to understand and appeal to every member of its central cast is probably why it remains as impactful to my core as an adult as it did when I was a child watching it alone in the dark.

Even in a year that has seen Spielberg literally make his semi-autobiography, I am still pressed to suggest E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial remains clearly his most personal film: it taps into his full powers as a crafter of cinematic marvel, his deepest anchors to childlike amazement, and his effortless understanding of how to tell specific and complex feelings by a specific arrangement of compositions, visual and audial. So what if he’s laying it on thick? He gets the job done just the same and better than any other storyteller I can think of. When you’re the best at something, I don’t think you should have to apologize for a damn thing.

*It’s also to the point where originally for that movie’s 40 year anniversary, I pitched a central episode on the movie for A Night at the Opera and one of my co-hosts who shant be named expressed reluctance due to not caring for the movie. Ah well.
**I will confess if there’s any specific issue I have with the movie it is the sudden presentation of the villains, specifically their costuming in the scene where they confront the family and invade their home.

Yamada So Fat…

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Around the final two films of Takahata Isao’s time with Studio Ghibli and his career overall* – with a Kubrick-ian 14 years in turnover time between them – the animation director finally opted to do entirely away with the refined manga-inspired cel animation style that was Studio Ghibli’s default mode. In his decision to adapt Ishii Hisaichi’s long-running comic strip series ののちゃん (Nono-chan) under its original title となりのやまだ君 – literally translated to My Neighbors the Yamadas – Takahata had decided to undertake a new more hand-drawn look to the pictures that would resemble the comic strip much further than if it were solid blocks and perfect color fills and full backgrounds. The result was a movie full of personality within its rough handiwork, something that implied a direct tangibility to the image that gave a beating involved heart to the film.

But also because Takahata was not crazy, this was the first entirely-computer animated film in Ghibli’s output. Which does a lot for flattening the image so that we buy the characters and whatever background they have being on the same dimensional plane without losing the sketched texture of the lines.

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Despite that strong dedication to depth, My Neighbor the Yamadas is indisputably the most cartoonish of Takahata’s films since his early television specials of Panda! Go, Panda! and that gives it a lot more of a pleasant aesthetic for viewers of any age. Particularly given that it seeks to make its viewers relate to its subject, the Yamada family – child daughter Nonoko (Uno Naomi) who is the namesake of the comic, teenage son Noboru (Isobata Hayato), matriarch housewife Matsuko (Asaoka Yukiii), patriarch breadwinner Takashi (Masuoka Touru), and Matsuko’s elderly mother Shige (Araki Masako). All of them as wacky and broad as the round designs on them which affords an endearment to the film as well as the easy faded colors that inhabit the line drawings of each shot. Not to mention the steps My Neighbors the Yamadas takes to ease us into its cartoon styles by having Nonoko casually explain away the shape of Shige’s by drawing a pair of cosmic objects and then filling it out with her beloved grandma’s features, helping us to quickly associate the simplicity of Yamadas‘s design with shapes.

Which works out wonders for the sort of broad comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas is attempting to do.

May as well not beat the bush any further about the loose structure Takahata’s screenplay has: there’s no plot to My Neighbor the Yamadas. It’s all vignettes of various length and the film does nothing to truly suggest a true logic to the arrangement of the segments, although it is easy to sense the beginning and the end as a viewer. It’s remarkably easy viewing in general for something lacking a story, none of the segues to the next vignette feel abrupt and a lot of it feels like vague association with something that came up in the last vignette. Like maybe dinner might be a large part of one vignette and that drives us to the next vignette or two sequences in a row where one of the male members of the family forgets something while rushing to work or school. Takahata has somehow just cracked a flow out of segments and I’m sure there was a logic to his choices but it’s not apparent to the viewer and I don’t think it should matter.

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Though, if one actually sat down and noted the reasoning behind it, it could be remarked upon that the two major bookends involve a speech given by a character as affirmation and encouragement for a marriage, one of which hilariously remains fixed on the speaker as he fumbles and grasps for his forgotten words and his family watches in horror, the other giving way to a fantastical epic portraying the creation of a family as a Homeric adventure where the family is constructed through plants and fruits narrated warmly by an old woman (who I sadly cannot identify in the cast). That latter is the artistic peak of the film as it abandons the empty white spaces and fills the frame with depth and detail with pastel seas and stalks and fruits, but it’s not the only moment where Takahata decides to be ambitiously versatile: late in the film, a non-threatening but still tense moment of confrontation with a few juvenile bikers involves more lines and a darker palette with less (but impressively deliberate) lighting to knock the “fun” out of the moment without losing the cartoon aesthetic, followed by a kinetic “fantasy” action sequence akin to superhero movies.

But it must of course be constantly acknowledged that this is just as well aided by the fact that My Neighbors the Yamadas is gutbustingly funny in a very endearing and relentless sense with those above moments cushioning a familiarity with the family we have accomplished just by innocent and silly but wholly relatable incidents before tying it with a bow by a very celebratory musical number of “Que Sera, Sera” just to bring all its admiration of the Yamadas and how well they represent us right home as they laugh along into the sunset. It is near impossible to pick a “sweetest” moment in a film like this, but Takahata definitely selected quite a note to say goodbye to this family with.

Earlier this year, I’ve been privileged enough to rewatch the entire feature canon of Studio Ghibli (including the precursor Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and frustratingly excluding the Belgian co-production The Red Turtle) on the big-screen in the presence of an audience, most of whom (including my friend) were getting to experience this for the first time. My Neighbors the Yamadas was decidedly not the most packed house but it was possibly the most responsive I’ve seen the audience throughout the whole run. It is not as widely-seen (at least in the United States, I cannot speak to its popularity in Japan but I expect being based on beloved comics indicates commercial success), but I absolutely think this film deserves to be regarded as much of a crowd-pleaser as anything by Miyazaki. My Neighbors the Yamadas is certainly a gem of a picture that is infectiously affable and assuredly humorous in all its color and shape.

NB: I was finishing this essay on a flight to New York (after having a draft sitting here for months – sorry, readers) and I had playing in the background The Death of Stalin, where I recall a similar joke occurs as My Neighbor the Yamadas involving wearing pajamas underneath your suit.

NNB: LOL, that fucking NB was from an earlier attempt to complete this draft. If y’all ever want to hold me accountable for deadlines…

*Barring a single short segment made for the anthology film Winter Days, inspired by that favorite poet of Takahata’s to reference in his movies (including and especially this review’s subject), Bashō.

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You Think This Is a Game?

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I didn’t get to review Central Intelligence from 2016 before and that’s a hell of a shame. Because it was, not shitting you, my most-watched movie of 2016 by a lot. And this isn’t some “Oh my god, I can’t escape it” or “man, this movie won’t stop being on tv all the time” (although most of my watches of that movie were impromptu on HBO). No, Central Intelligence was a movie I fucking loved, warts and all. I left it with an unhidden appreciation for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who I already was in love with since I was a kid) and Kevin Hart (who I always suspected since Think Like a Man had a knack of comedy as a straight man foil, but never had much area to impress me until Central Intelligence). Central Intelligence was hella casual comfort food for me during a mostly blegh and uncertain year so I might be biased on that front, but it also helped me recognize a dynamic sort of friendly chemistry between the two actors I would not have expected and got me ready to appreciate whatever was next for their careers.

If my unapologetic love for Central Intelligence is the decision that causes anybody who reads this blog to decide I don’t know shit about movies, so be it. I promise I didn’t open with this to weed out my enemies about this film. Instead, I wanted to just establish that if there’s any such audience for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – the 2017 sleeper hit sequel to the 1995 original, once again co-starring The Rock and Hart – I’m it. I sat my ass right down on this seat because I was looking forward to another screwball go ’round between those two actors. What a pleasant surprise to me when it turns out that they are outstaged by Jack Black and Karen Gillan in the movie, but to explain that, I may as well outline the plot first from Chris McKenna’s script.

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Like the last film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens with salvaging itself from cries of blasphemy in having the famed decrepit board game be retconned into a video game… it actually transformed into one. After a teenager named Alex (Mason Guccione – and while I don’t think who plays him as an adult is eventful to be a surprise, it certainly surprised me. All I will note is that I love how Alex’s visual admiration for Metallica was a cue for our identification of the character and, lest you forget what is the namesake of this blog to begin with, it got a lot of points by me) in the late 1990s declares board games to be no longer cool and the sentient game thereby turns itself into something to accommodate Alex’s tastes and lure him into a disappearance.

20 years later in 2016, four stereotypical teenagers straight out of a low-effort high school picture all find themselves in detention for cheating in the case of the bookish nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff, man those Naked Brothers are sticking around, aren’t they?) and his former friend and now uncertain jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), mouthing off to her gym teacher in outsider Martha’s case (Morgan Turner), or just taking a phone conversation in the middle of her class in superficial popular girl Bethany’s (Madison Iseman). And lo and behold, the very Jumanji game is located in the school basement which their detention takes place and they unwisely turn it on, ending up sucked into the game like Alan Parish in the last film, but this time we actually see the world of the game. And as a new twist, they have been embodied by their avatars. And my interest in the movie is in the reverse order.

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For, you see, The Rock, Hart, Black, and Gillan are those avatars – Spencer has become the brawny explorer Professor Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge his meek zoologist valet Dr. Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), Martha has turned into the gorgeous combat-ready Ruby Roudhouse (Gillan), and Bethany into the obese cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). And in addition to all of the actors having something of a blast in their respective Republic Adventure Serial role, all of them are able to embody some form of their younger counterpart’s personalities so as to be recognizable to us: Johnson’s boyish anxiety at his predicament and wonder at the things he’s capable of doing in Bravestone’s body, Hart’s grasping at confidence even despite the good height advantage Johnson has over him, Gillan’s adolescent surliness (as well as a hilarious montage in which she has to practice the most ridiculous sexy strut to show how ridiculous she feels trying to fit into a gender role), and Black’s, like, everything. Black is ridiculously brilliant at playing femininity frequently and turning that into self-deprecating horror at the middle-aged man Bethany has become and the uninhibited infatuation she has with Bravestone or later the already-taken fifth avatar of Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonagh (Nick Jonas – so we have TWO alumni from young boy bands in the 2000s and yet nobody thought to put him in the same scene as Wolff). Guess who that one is?

Anyway, while those five are indeed the most enjoyable and entertaining of the bunch, the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is still filled with the sort of pop-up appearances that would only amuse me in something this frothy like Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, or William Tokarsky popping in as extremely novel Non-Playable Characters (Darby especially is phenomenal at the rigidity and looped enthusiasm that makes his character feel like a program rather than a person, Tokarsky is just right at home with other exotic or dangerous looking mugs in a bazaar).

Of course, that’s the cast and they’re doing heavy lifting to provide a movie more fun than the rest of it allows. All my apologies to the usually extremely talented director Jake Kasdan, but the adventure movie he’s intent on crafting all around these performances doesn’t feel nearly as propulsive or engaging as one would hope. This is especially going to be the case when your cards are against you in structure (once again, the high school drama framing the video game narrative is kind of unfortunate, though at least it’s not as overstuffed as its predecessor film) and visual effects (which the previous film beats this sequel at and you will remember that I used those special effects AGAINST Johnson’s film). There’s obviously a possible argument that the effects are supposed to be unconvincing and cartoonish and not grounded and that just doesn’t stop these hippos and elephants and bugs from making my eyes water (the bugs though – at the control of Cannavale’s updated hunter villain Van Pelt – get to feel crawly enough to be effective).

So, fuck the adventure. Don’t come for the adventure, it’s episodic and you can feel each story beat thud in how it’s put together and the characters’ development in their personalities is shoehorned in. Come to hang out with four extremely funny personalities bounce off of each other while meeting with the demand of having to play young again and having a joy doing it. And I know I’ll be back the next time any of these four decide to collaborate once again. Maybe the Rock can bring them all back in his inevitable Fast and Furious spin-off.

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In the Jungle, the Miny Jungle

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It’s been a little over 3 years now, but I don’t think we as a film culture have ever healed from the shock of Robin Williams’ suicide and I don’t think we ever will frankly. And the reasons why are as clear as the nose on our face. Not only was it upsetting to discover how Williams was suffering in such a sudden fashion, but it was the suffering of a man whose constant animated mugging and heavy warmth moved an entire generation of young filmgoers in a sentimental manner away from a similarly manic but not nearly as heartfelt a contemporary as Jim Carrey. And I am sorry to say that, despite growing up right in the middle of that generation (Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire having come out around my first year on Earth and being inescapable), I am not one of those people as an adult. As a child, it was probably easier for me to enjoy but as an adult, I just don’t think the mugging and tenderness mix very well, though I think Williams pulled it off wayyyyyyy better than somebody like Roberto Benigni.

Let this often be a lesson in how heartless and muted from nostalgia I am as a human being.

Joe Johnston’s 1995 adventure children’s book adaptation Jumanji has more than enough mediocre elements in it that I don’t really have to talk about Williams any more once I get started than to say that while there are moments where he is definitely selling the manchild aspect of his character of Alan Parrish (most particularly his anxious body language in a scene where he avoids kissing Bonnie Hunt’s love interest Sarah), this is a frustratingly sedate performance that doesn’t nearly make good on the promise of a wild man emerging out of the jungle biome of the titular cursed board game, Jumanji, an admittedly interesting piece of lived-in production design that feels carved and otherworldly. At the center of that board game is a supernatural looking orb that feels like it’s just full of darkness.

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How Parrish ends up trapped in that board game to begin with is of the interest of the first scene set in 1969 as the adolescent Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) deal with Alan’s troubles with his wealthy and overbearing father (Jonathan Hyde), bullying from Sarah’s boyfriend, and guilt from costing one of his only friends Carl (David Alan Grier) his job by playing Jumanji and ending up with Sarah traumatized by watching Alan get sucked in and then getting run out by a bunch of bats.

Fast forward 26 years and now the board game has fallen into the hands of newly orphaned siblings Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce, respectively), who begin playing it after moving into the Parrish home and finding themselves in peril as the board game unleashes a jungle into the house and with it eventually an adult Alan (Williams). Finding out soon enough that they cannot undo all this damage to the house until they complete the game AND that they cannot progress in the game without the now adult Sarah (played now by Hunt), they begin tunneling their way through warning rhymes of a new beast prowling amongst them that they must dodge or incapacitate as vines and trees and rain and other environmental elements begin covering up the Parrish home.

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Now, essentially this is just a platform for setpiece after setpiece of our characters versus Giant Venus Flytraps and Crocodiles and Lions and all until the in-game hunter Van Pelt (Also played by Hyde, probably to represent Alan’s unwillingness to grow up in a very shallow way, but Hyde’s clearly having fun with it) breaks out and the mayhem spills into suburbia. And the unfortunate thing is that these are… bad setpieces. Forgettable and flat, with terrible CGI (though I doubt this bothered me in the 1990s, but the monkeys especially look bad. The best looking monkey is a makeup job.) and a lack of urgency in the way they’re cut at all.

Joe Johnston is mostly hit or miss with me as a filmmaker, but I get the feeling that Johnston is so much stronger when he gets to work in period pieces like the previous Rocketeer and the later Captain America: The First Avenger. And Jumanji is not not that, given that the “young Alan in the 60s” scenes take up a frustrating amount of runtime but they’re shot in the most default Rockwellian aesthetic that would have been the laziest thing I’ve ever seen Johnston do if it wasn’t for the carwreck that’s The Wolfman. And that’s the closest to inspired he ever feels, for when it gets to the modern world… everything’s so bland and uninteresting to look at, especially in a very central chase through a department store where any energy comes from a clamorously percussive score by James Horner and a completely uncertain sense of cutting by Robert Dalva. Neither of these things give the movie a manic chaotic sense of fun, it’s just tiring in a nauseating way. The jungle scenes in the mansion at least want to have some sense of atmosphere but they’re so clearly colored in a funereal manner that dampens any sense of fun and lit like an amusement park’s promotional material. It’s unable to match up to Jumanji‘s goal of being an answer to the earlier Jurassic Park – a family oriented hit about a dysfunctionally put-together “family” trying to survive the savagest elements of nature.

Even when the movie finally gets everything wrapped up neat and tidy in the 90s storyline, there is still no less than 15 minutes left to go as it tries to solve all of Alan’s childhood dilemmas in one swing and even when it’s nowhere near as long, it’s reminiscent to me of the feeling I had with the multiple endings of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I had a desire for things to just stop and fade eventually for I did learn or gain anything from watching Jumanji and could feel the time slipping out from under me like Alan’s fingers slipping into the board game.

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Christmastime Is Here

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I don’t watch TV very much and I don’t really celebrate Christmas except depending on who I’m dating at the time and if they celebrate. I do certainly admire the season though, especially if I’m spending it in an environment that’s nice and chilly and cold and bonus points if it’s snowing. It is certainly my favorite time of year. And regardless of if I’m attending a Christmas party that year or not, I’m gonna be spending more than a little bit of time watching certain favorites as a force of habit, namely holiday TV specials. Y’know, the kind that were animated and best made in the 1960s (though not by any “objective” standard. Even today, TV animation on a budget is pretty rough as is but Rankin/Bass’ stop-motion certainly tried to circumvent this). They’re short and sweet so I can watch enough to fill an hour before I sleep the night before Christmas and they’re a nice little amount of mood to continue on for the rest of the season. And I’ll especially give TV specials one thing over films:

If it weren’t for TV specials, I wouldn’t enter every winter season without the song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in my head. And I’m very happy to have that be the theme song of my winters, nice and falling singular piano notes apply a melody in my head to the imagery of snowflakes gently dropping to the ground. Just one piano tune over and over, something to cement early in my life the idea that jazz is always the best Christmas music, and Vince Guaraldi was the genius to make me think that.

Guaraldi’s soundtrack – which also includes “Linus and Lucy” another very close theme song to my childhood and a children’s choir performing the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (there is also a children’s choir involved in “Christmastime Is Here” but my mind just goes to the piano underneath and its wonderful and evocative simplicity) – is not the only great thing that the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas gave me, but it is the thing that sticks most to me. If it were not for the special, I don’t see myself being so enamored with jazz at such a young age that I would find it calming or atmospheric and all through the best kind of minimalism.

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If it weren’t for A Charlie Brown Christmas, I also would probably be a lot more cynical about Christmas than I actually am as an adult who has no intentions of religious alignment in his life and is in many ways actively against religious institution. I’m sure one more cynical about religion than I am could probably be dissatisfied as the makers feared with the solution to the loveable child blockhead Charlie Brown’s usual depressive woes, this time centered around the Christmas season, as simple as (SPOILERS FOR A TELEVISION SPECIAL OLDER THAN MY DAD WHICH I DON’T THINK PEOPLE WATCH FOR THE PLOT ANYMORE) the blanket-dragging child Linus reciting from the Gospel According to Luke and poof! There’s Charlie Brown’s answer to the missing meaning of Christmas, but it IS true in a literal sense and it’s a spirited and confident reading from a child! A legit child actor, Chris Shea, was able to stand and deliver the Bible communicating the full and expressive meaning of the Shepherds’ Annunciation of the Nativity of Jesus and as somebody who grew up in Islamic Sunday School watching a lot of fellow kids trying to memorize Qur’an, I can’t imagine most of my teachers would have deigned for that sort of awareness of the material and declarative reading.

That’s kind of the miracle of A Charlie Brown Christmas that makes it so pleasant for me. The entire cast from Peter Robbins as Charlie on down to Sally Dryer in a one-scene part delivering a proud insistence she never sent Charlie a “Merry Christmas” are all young children around the 9-to-11-year-old range and they have these blocks of dialogue expressing existential crises and criticisms of capitalism and “commercialism” (I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word “commercialism” at their ages) that they have to deliver and they ace it with flying colors. Emphasis on the right elements while still sounding wholly like the stuff children would say with only the slightest hint of a hand tipped in maturity.

Credit it to director Bill Melendez for knowing how to direct voice acting, credit it to Charles M. Schulz – creator of the original Peanuts comic strips series that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of and writer of the special (the television special was made right at the height of the franchise’s popularity) – who would know these characters better than anybody else in the world and knows just the right amount of character and youth to imbue into the writing, credit it to whichever casting director was able to pull in this many intelligent young actors who could certainly know how to express thoughts like these, and of course credit it to these kids for pulling it off most of all and instantly sticking to our ideas of how these characters sound. The moroseness in Brown’s voice, the bold egotism in Lucy’s, these are just impossible to remove from the characters as I remember them, even when I’m just looking at the comic strip that reliably entertained me from my own childhood onward.

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I am, truth be told, shocked that I’m nearing the end of my praise for my definitive work of Christmas-based pop culture and only now mentioned Melendez. Melendez’s animation work makes the best with what little they had, pushing the budget and month as far as he could, maintaining the flat 2-dimensional primitive stylizations of the hand-drawn comic strip so that it’s all in one plane, thereby establishing the style that every single Peanuts production since would have to live by lest they mess with tradition. And yet there’s still motion and spacing that Melendez is willing to play with, filling out an entire skating rink with individual (if still repeated motions) including a wonderful amount of liberty taken with Charlie’s beloved beagle Snoopy as he glides over the light blue ice (including a wonderful moment where he drags the other characters in a line all across the shimmering screen) or the memorable setpiece of everybody dancing to Linus, Pig Pen, and Snoopy playing “Linus and Lucy”. In fact, if it probably wasn’t for Melendez’s conservative usage of lines and colors in a manner that feels lovingly personal, it probably be able to sell the cuteness behind Charlie Brown’s choice of Christmas tree for the Christmas play, a lonely bent stick with barely peeking out of its branches. In a special that’s hardly the stuff of immaculate craft, this little tree that somehow means something to Charlie Brown doesn’t feel quite as bad and that means we sympathize with the care and adoration he wants his friends to give to the tree as well.

So, yeah, it’s not perfect. The audio feels like an unfinished element with missing sounds from what we’re viewing and very apparent seams where we hear what lines of dialogue are put together from separate takes (although there is a terrific gag of Snoopy giving his best impression of several different animals). And I’m sure some look for a more detailed design or fluid kind of animation from their animation, but I can’t see myself ever being dissatisfied with a Christmas night sitting down and playing this. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a television special that wants us to understand the meaning of Christmas and delivers it not just in substance but in the amount of soul that every single person involved in this special put into it. Melendez, Schulz, Guarini, and all their company gave us this one undiluted package of Christmas joy. I couldn’t feel any more merry after watching it if I tried.

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Horrid Henry

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So, between Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, 2017 sure has me kind of turnt on narratives about sexual abuse to young girls that are written and directed by men absolutely unqualified to write about these topics. They’re not entirely clueless and there are elements of it that they illuminate, but in the overall narrative, they end with some extremely grievous final notes on the matter and that leaves a shockingly bad taste in my mouth watching these movies. However, while Split apparently houses some genre work that I spied well enough that I might be somewhat interested in re-watching and evaluating it someday, I have absolutely no desire to ever put myself through The Book of Henry again unless somebody is willing to sit down and roast the movie with me*. It’s a miserable experience alone.

And the fact that this movie has such a well-meaning but toxic male savior-esque attitude about rape is only the half of it. That’s not the main thing The Book of Henry is about nor is it the only thing wrong about the movie. It has been said by many people by now, but let me repeat, there is not one narrative element of The Book of Henry that doesn’t sit me down and wonder “who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?” The answer is clearly present in how much Trevorrow and company dedicate their efforts in the craft, right down to Michael Giacchino trying to give the sparkliest imitation of mid-90s Amblin’ family fare that only 90s kids like I would get, forever a sign of how cursed we are as a group. Trevorrow and his crew are dedicated to providing us to the most amiable Rockwellian blanket atmosphere making this feel like a warm family story, totally ignorant of the fact that the script Gregg Hurwitz is fucking psychotic.

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That script’s duotagonists are the titular precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his “struggling” single mother Susan (Naomi Watts who has made damn sure we will remember her 2017 as the year of Twin Peaks and not this shit). I put “struggling” in scare quotes because she insists on continuing to work hard as a waitress and driving a very distressed looking automobile, but Henry is gifted enough intellectually to turn her paychecks into hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to stock-brokering over a goddamn payphone at his school. He’s also apparently intelligent enough to crush a kid’s dreams of being an Olympic dodgeball champion in the classroom in a manner that apparently impresses his middle school teacher for appealing to her existential crisis, despite clearly deflating a child in her care.

Henry’s a fucking asshole. Like, flat out. And the movie thinks we’re going to be rooting for him when he begins elaborating on a plan to discreetly assassinate his next-door neighbor Police Commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris) that we know Henry can and will execute. Even with the knowledge of Glenn consistently abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), even with most of the movie told through the wide-eyed perspective of Henry’s younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) whom Henry protects from school bullies, all as emotional blackmail, Henry is so repulsive as a human being in his judgmental attitude towards his mother struggling to find a way to function as a mother figure despite Henry ripping all financial agency and maternal responsibility from her life, superiority complex towards his kids, and the clear psychopathy in his leap from “try to appeal to authorities or superiors who can help Christina and fail” to “I’m going to shoot this man to fucking death” in less than a week. Mind you, when you’re trying to appeal to your principal to help someone, you’re not going to get anybody on your side busting into the door with “Goddammit, Janice”.

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Even before we approach the middle development of the film where it takes a narrative turn that flips this at-first terribad Radio Flyer reboot (and mind you, Radio Flyer was already garbage) upside-down and incapable of figuring out what direction it can go with its story, Trevorrow is clearly interested in providing the most treacly nostalgic child’s wonder treatment of this material that is wildly inappropriate by any means, sun-dappled cinematography and directing the cast to be as casual about the shit that has to come out of their mouth as possible. Watts looks like she’s suffering the worst of it and wants to bail ASAP, while Sarah Silverman looks like there’s absolutely no bit of this she will take seriously, giving the sloppiest Amy Winehouse impression I could witness top to bottom. And when one looks at Hurwitz’ previous work*, which includes runs on the Batman comics and thriller novel series about genetically-modified hyper-intelligent assassins, I don’t know how anybody thought he was worth the benefit of the doubt on writing this movie, it reads on paper like just another one of his thrillers but if he sent it as a Peanuts story commission and wasn’t laughed out of the building.

It’s really hard not to turn this into just “this moment sucked and this moment sucked and so did this one” like I really really want to. Not only because of spoilers but there are so many miscalculations – from Silverman kissing Lieberher to a talent show montage crosscut with a climax that ends up wildly Brooksian in tonal whiplash all the way down to the final resolution the movie provides in the end – so all I can do is just give you my horrorstruck stare at what kind of movie everybody was ok with and how frustrating it is that people actually believed in this as wholesome and worth delivering to a family audience. Fucking miss me with this shit, don’t ever talk to me or my son ever again.

Man, J.J. Abrams is definitely not my ideal director of Star Wars: Episode IX, especially if The Last Jedi does a hell of a lot of work to move the new trilogy far beyond. But The Book of Henry is the most engaged time I’ve had watching any of Trevorrow’s three movies and at this point I’m glad to take anything out of the possibility of a Star Wars film by this guy.

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*Seriously, I gotta make a commentary for this movie. It’ll be to The Book of Henry the exact opposite of what Roger Ebert did to Citizen Kane.
**The way I got Hurwitz’ CV was from looking through his Wikipedia page, which reads heavily like a man trying to impress me, including non-sequiturs about going undercover in cults and swimming with sharks and sneaking into demolitions ranges with Navy SEALs. I would not be surprised if he wrote his own wikipedia page and if so, he sounds exactly the sort of dude who’d introduced himself by saying “I went to Harvard AND Oxford” and thus exactly the sort of dude who’d identify with Henry and want us to find him impressive.

Be Our Pest, Be Our Pest… Put My Patience to the Test

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I don’t know if we feel safe with identifying the very beginning of this exhausting span of Live-Action (or Photorealistic CGI) remakes of their animated classics as 1994 with Stephen Sommers’ The Jungle Book, 1996 with the Glenn Close vehicle 101 Dalmatians, or 2010 with Tim Burton’s nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland. In any case, despite being really impressed with the Jon Favreau version of The Jungle Book and David Gordon Green Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon last year, I think Bill Condon’s remake of Beauty and the Beast has proven to be enough to exhaust me from wanting these things to happen again, no matter how many Donald Glovers you cast as Simba. It’s not a fatigue things where there’s too many of them (I mean, there are, but one was already too many), it’s a “THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING BAD AND POTENTIALLY THE WORST OF THE REMAKES SO FAR GIVE OR TAKE A REWATCH OF BURTON’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND THAT WILL NEVER FUCKING HAPPEN” thing.

I am aware I may be overreacting, given that Beauty and the Beast is a movie that I can find very few problems with and one of my favorite Disney movies of all-time (hence a contender for one of my favorite movies of all time outright), but I can’t think of any which way that most of the changes made to the story or aesthetic of the original animated film could be assumedly directed towards the good end of things. Like for real, the times when the movie isn’t being totally offensive to my eyes are how it just tries to or Ewan McGregor as the candelabra Lumiere actually displays campy swagger within his scenes, thus invigorating energy into the sloggish film just from his own voice acting (the design of the character… ehhhhh… we’ll get back to that.

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This film has entirely drained me of my willingness to sacrifice time and energy to provide a prose review so I’m opting to just rush this as quickly as I can by listing all the things about this movie that I either very much enjoyed (for there are indeed things that I enjoyed that tried – but failed due to overwhelming circumstances – to dull the pain of watching this) and by listing everything about it that I fucking hated. I will not forgive this movie for the following items:

  • Dan Stevens has been on a roll already from Downton Abbey to Legion to even a star-making performance (in a perfect world) in The Guest, a movie I otherwise dislike. He’s not in The Cobbler enough to let that derail his career, why the fuck would you dare to ruin his stride by giving him the rubberiest beast face one could ever see and morphing his voice? This is an unfair way to tarnish his legacy!
  • Speaking of the visual aesthetic of the thing, all of the characters who are transformed into frightening looking frigid items that inspire more shock and body horror fear than the sort of magical wonder Beauty and the Beast as a story should aim for? In some cases, like Lumiere, the physicality of the thing is outright ghastly and devoid of a way to match the personality to the look (which is why I enjoy animation so much). Is this deliberate? I hope not because it just shows contempt for the whole concept. Like, this screenshot from Twin Peaks is essentially the vibe I get from every single physical design of the house staff:

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And yet their voices are so cheerful.

  • Speaking of the aesthetic, did Sarah Greenwood’s unicorn shit all over the fucking set and they couldn’t clean it up in time? This castle of the beast is a garish gold! The provincial town is fine if still lost in time, but who looks to these movies for temporal identity.
  • If you’re going to have a cast of singers, this isn’t La La Land where they’re meant to feel like real people. They better damn well sing and I will never EVER FUCKING EVER forgive director Bill Condon for having an autotuned Emma Thompson throw her Lansbury impersonation to perform a Daft Punk rendition of Beauty and the Beast. Let alone Emma Watson sounding like T-Pain overdubbed her.
  • Josh Gad’s self-aware post-modern performance would be welcome in a movie that’s obviously supposed to feel like a parody of Beauty and the Beast and even then… the stuff he says is just not funny. There has never been a comedy actor that’s made me more conflicted than Gad.
  • Tim Rice is not Howard Ashman. Because Ashman was a God and Tim Rice is a terrible lyricist. So please, stop using Rice’s fucking songs. “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and “Evermore” do not remotely compare to “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Belle”. Not to mention the visuals of those numbers are just fractured and not nearly as sweeping as the original.
  • More importantly somehow the movie thought “Daddy Issues” was the answer to making the Beast seem a much more interesting character and ignoring complaints Stockholm Syndrome. Instead it makes The Beast seem so petulant and it’s inconceivable how the brand new “feminist” version of Belle would be even remotely attracted to him.
  • The consequence of all this is padding a fleet 86 minute fairy tale to a 129 minute overgluttonous grotesquerie.

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And because I am absolutely generous, I will also list everything I like about this movie’s existence.

  • The costumes are good in a cosplay contest winner sort of way. Nothing truly expressive, but Jacqueline Durran obviously wants to emulate the original in the most theatrical manner and gets the job done.
  • Ewan McGregor gives a fun vocal performance as Lumiere just chewing up scenery without even being physicially on-screen and his chemistry with Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights things up enough (pun intended).
  • McGregor, Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald have the most hilariously fake accents I’ve ever heard and put so much character and personality in their limited screentime that I would have much rather THEY were the stars of the movie.

And that’s it. None for Gretchen Wieners. Fuck this movie.

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Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner Office

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Somewhere down the line since Home was miraculously able to keep Dreamworks Animation Studios alive at a time when its death seemed so very imminent, somebody up top in the creative sector must have realized “Hey, we have a color and shapes and depth that we can actually play with in our animated work rather than rely on our pop culture references and obnoxious music cues!” The consequence of which we’ve had three of the best-looking animated works they’ve supplied us to date – Kung Fu Panda 3 (still my favorite DWA movie except for maybe How to Train Your Dragon), Trolls, and now 2017’s The Boss BabyThe Boss Baby, not having nearly as much moxie about lighting as Panda or color and camera movements as Trolls, is by a large margin the least interesting-looking of the three but it’s also the most pleasant surprise of them as well. That was going to happen regardless when a movie apparently invented solely on the gimmick of having Alec Baldwin play that cold businessman voice on a baby’s body comes across as halfway distant.

The Boss Baby is surprisingly more than that. It’s a shockingly well-earned narrative on growing up and how small changes to a child as young as 7-year-old Timothy Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi, grandson of the legendary animator Ralph) can be perceived as big things, something director Tom McGrath relishes portraying with the scale of set designs within spaces as small as Tim’s room to as vast as Las Vegas. The animation team ups the size of walls and shadows if Tim is in a bad mood, stretches the depth of field if Tim is feeling distant or isolated, practically shakes the frame with intense chase action setpieces. All with the editing by James Ryan letting us know what Tim sees happening is not necessarily what IS happening without undoing the bigness of Tim’s imagination that we’re spending our time in.

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Which is probably what makes Michael McCullers’ screenplay (adapting Marla Frazee’s children’s picture book, though I do not know how faithful it is an adaptation) get to work so well despite a few logical gaps that go beyond “this is a kid making it up to explain his brother’s existence” and some dodgy dialogue (I have a friend who works in a theater who walked in on the line “Suck it! Don’t you want to know where baby’s come from?” without seeing what’s on the screen and boy that must’ve been uncomfortable for him). McCullers starts simple enough: Tim’s parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) come home suddenly one day with a new baby (Baldwin) who dresses in suits and spends his day plotting a takeover of the parents’ invested love towards the two children. Tim is obviously using this theory to deal with the fact that he’s getting too old for the bedtime stories and that he has a responsibility to take care of his new brother and both Bakshi and Baldwin are great enough voice actors to give this “worlds apart” antagonism that lends the two a believable cadence as siblings but a prickliness to grow into their distrust and hate of each other. That’s when The Boss Baby is at its best, including a surprisingly uninsulting usage of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as an emotional motif. It’s still got its problems – the trailer already warned me of the random audience-ignorant throwback to Baldwin’s famous Glengarry Glen Ross rant and I still rolled my eyes; the movie trades DWA’s soundtrack and pop culture reference M.O. for toilet humor, which is the number one way for me to guess a family film hates kids – but it’s satisfying during that first third of its runtime.

Then there’s the moment it doubles down on what the Boss Baby’s secret mission is, for it is established early on in a fairly cute opening credits sequence depicting a Busby-Berkeley-esque factory for babies to be either sent in the real world or work for Baby Corp. with the consciousness of an adult… and that’s already weird and something that demands a lot more from the audience than you want to do for a children’s film out the gate. Anyway, the deeper Tim and the Boss Baby get into working on that case, the more convoluted the screenplay becomes and the tangle never really gets cleared up until the last 15 minutes when our protagonists are in the wind-down of their accomplishments and trying to remember this is essentially about Tim dealing with his family issues, not whatever the Boss Baby’s career aspirations are meant to be. This is a very labored plot that doesn’t seem to feel that family dynamic is enough to carry the film and while I don’t think it’s wrong, I would have rather it taken a leap of faith on just being Tim vs. The Boss Baby than the direction it went with introducing The Big Boss Baby (Steve Buscemi) as a myth and then an antagonist.

OK, so when I actually look back at the mess that is the plot, my eyes do start to water, but they’re not watering when I look at the roundness of the baby characters (The Boss Baby has a whole squad and this is the closest DWA came to good-looking human animation with how adorable they are shaped) or the brilliant boldness of the fantasy-esque sequences in Baby Corp in all its light, white-set colorings. Nobody expected to hate The Boss Baby more than I did as an uninspired children’s flick without a semblance of fun, but it’s actually just light enough as fluff to make me consider that maybe Dreamworks Animation has been growing better and better. Maybe I won’t even dread the next film they make with this streak they’re on.

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