The Princess Bride

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I would love to hide behind the fact that I am still – 7 months later – not ready to say goodbye to Takahata Isao as the excuse that I was sooooooooooo tardy with this retrospective and this final entry is last-minute. No, I shall be transparent about the fact that a mix between laziness with this site and an overwhelming amount of real-world responsibilities arresting me with anxiety was why this 5-film goal took way longer to complete than I intended.

But the fact IS that I am not ready to say goodbye to Takahata and it’s frustrating not just because of how long its been since his death, but because with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata pretty much made the perfect film with which to say goodbye to the world. Even while Takahata worked until the very end (as he had later as artistic producer for The Red Turtle, the latest of Studio Ghibli’s releases), it’s hard to imagine him not being aware that his age at 78 when the film premiered in 2013 and the large 14-year gap in between his last two films spelt the end of his directorial career. So he made it count in more ways than one.

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Let’s tackle The Tale of the Princess Kaguya outside of that context for a second, because it is an emotionally moving film even outside of that retrospect. Adapted by Takahata and Sakaguchi Riko from what is believed to be the oldest surviving Japanese prose monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, a bamboo cutter (Chii Takeo) discovers a tiny baby girl residing in one of the stalks he cuts down (this resembles a sequence in My Neighbors the Yamadas so well that I expect Takahata was planning this film for longer than the 14 years between) and brings her home to his wife (Miyamoto Nobuko), believing the child to be of a divine presence. The baby’s accelerated growth into a child and the discovery of gold and silks within more bamboo only furthers this belief on the cutter’s part, so in no time they make for a life of nobility in the capital with the girl they have since named Hime (Asakura Asi). It is much to her dismay that she must leave behind the rest of the village children she had grown with, including the strong and mature Sutemaru (Kora Kengo), and learning the sort of restrictions and demands a life as a princess forces upon her only adds to Hime’s blues, later to be re-named Kaguya by a priest.

The 137 minutes that make up The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are certainly not of a brisk sort (particularly a middle sort involving numerous unappealing attempts at courting the then adult princess start to drag in a repetition of punchlines), but it is nevertheless one that recognizes the ephemeral sweep with which this girl must live her life: growing and going through stages with barely enough time to recognize and adore this world she’s been brought into with the sparse and direct nature of storytelling that folklore grants itself. At the same time, Takahata and Sakaguchi import a lot of contemporary depth via Kaguya’s feelings on her drafted princess-hood, the deft inherent talent she has at the position fighting against her desires to live a normal human outside back in peaceful rusticity. Likewise, her adoptive parents have their own emotions driving the story: the bamboo cutter’s desperate resentment at his previous poverty and the denied legitimacy of his ascension among the upper class and the wife’s attempts to help Kaguya feel comfortable with this life without willing to sacrifice their gained wealth.

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This dichotomy and conflict is – as would be for any animated film, especially one by a master such as Takahata – a visual one just as much as it is a narrative one. Once again, Takahata’s valued minimalism where the image is just fading at the edges into white is utilized to shape the image into something like a painting, aided by the elegant and traditional hand-painting that makes up the animation style as though illustrations to a storybook. Moving illustrations with a vivid fluidity to them that rejects the formal roots of its aesthetic, particularly in a later sequence where we watch Kaguya zoom out of the palace and the city and into the field as a flurry of thick black lines in one direction, lifted by the romanticism Joe Hisaishi’s score elevates the tale to (shockingly his only collaboration with Takahata in their careers, even despite the fact that Takahata was the one who brought him to Studio Ghibli in the first place). Meanwhile, the forests are a very appealing bunch of watercolor greens and browns while the city goes for a muted white-based lack of personality that explains Kaguya’s lack of belonging in that place, without losing the grace of those hand-drawn lines that build up the image.

This is overall a scenario that affords a lot of different bittersweet observations about the human experience in such a limited time: the satisfaction of simple lives, the performative nature high-class society and its attempts to flaunt their wealth, the balancing act of parenthood where one must prove clairvoyent in knowing what’s best for their children, the certainty that things will mess up regardless, toxic men filling up more and more with hot air when they can not enamor a woman and going beyond their boundaries, women having no choice in their place in life and trying to make what they can out of the rapid changes thrown at them. All of these themes with wisdom and patience as the film scratches at them. Nothing within its observations on these matters is entirely positive, though it does afford a few respites of happiness where Kaguya can free herself an inch and it is heartbreaking when she must return to her princess status.

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There is one final observation The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has to give us before it ends and, while I don’t want to spoil it in detail, I can only say it is one about how hard it is to say goodbye to the world and the people who make up your world. Introduced at the very last leg of the film is an indomitable conclusiveness to all of Kaguya’s worries that also means a lot of sadness and emptiness in the lives of the bamboo cutter, his wife, Sutemaru, and everyone else that Kaguya cared for in her very short time on Earth, only accentuated by this abrupt obstacle. The beauty with which this is carried out – looking and sounding akin to a festive celebration rather than anything else – gives the promise of things feeling right by what’s occurring but the emotions behind the characters having to go through this and the fact that they are the ones we’re familiar with makes it all the more devastating despite this. It entirely ties up the bittersweet nature of the writing and the comprehensive manner of its plot as a portrayal of life itself, ending the film and Takahata’s career with a poignant final shot that feels as much of a tearjerking comfort as the titular fireflies in Grave of the Fireflies.

And having that moment be the one that sees Takahata off as a filmmaker only makes things feel like he was setting us up for that goodbye. It only seems fair to deal with his departure in as graceful a manner as Kaguya suggests one can. But, for a filmmaker whom I’ve never met that lived in a country I’ve never been to and so could only admire from afar, it can just be so hard to have to deal with the fact that he’s not going to make any more art for one to admire. In any case, I’m forever grateful to Takahata for what he did leave us with and they will continue to be my comforts in the years to come as life goes on.

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29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

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Raccoon City

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Out of probably any other movie in all of Studio Ghibli’s canon, Pom Poko is probably the one most likely to be lost in translation between its Japanese audience and its international audiences. It all starts from the very U.S. title, which one would assume is supposed to the translation to something but is quite frankly just an onomatopoeia representing the sound a tanuki’s belly makes when it is beat. And when we reel back to the superior Japanese title 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ and give it a literal translation, it goes Heisei-Era Tanuki War Ponpoko, a great epic mouthful helps settle the concept of this decade-spanning story being an ancient historical record for an intense period of time, treated the same manner as those feudal eras in Japanese history and narrated with period-based verve by Shinchou Kokontei.

Which is a charming joke because Heisei-Era is what Takahata Isao was living in when he was writing and directing Pom Poko and it’s an era we’re still living in today based on which Emperor is currently in the Chrysanthemum Throne, currently Akihito*. And it would be easy to tell even without that title, from all the modernized elements of Pom Poko‘s cities that make for one side of its conflict, that it’s taking place in a time of aggressive industrial growth… one that intrudes and interrupts on the lives of our tanuki protagonists.

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And in the tanuki is another thing that’s been lost in translation regarding Pom Poko‘s release on the other side of the Pacific, as they are a species indigenous specifically to East Asia and most especially prevalent in Japanese folklore. And because of their lack of presence in the west, Disney saw fit to decide to simply identify them as “raccoons” for the U.S. release, either because “raccoon dogs” (a closer approximation) is too much or they don’t realize that some kids will easily call those creatures tanuki without skipping a beat**. That Japanese folklore is the basis of their characterization in Takahata’s script where they are magical and agreeably mischievous, capable of shape-shifting and utilizing their expandable testicles as tools. I’m not sure if their tribalism early in the film or their traditionalist practices throughout are also rooted in folklore, but it nevertheless ends up becoming the very crux of the tanuki’s struggles from the moment where stern matriarchal Oroku (Kiyokawa Nijiko) interrupts the opening battle between two tribes over an already shrinking piece of land within the Tama Hills of Tokyo and insists that the tanuki unite and battle the humans.

In a world that is progressing beyond old means and attempting to optimize every square inch of itself, reverence towards culture is being muted. At least, that’s in the abstract sense. In a literal sense, the forests and nature in which the tanuki have thrived and made their home is being imposed upon by construction expanding the nearby cities. And so the tanuki spend the entirety of the film utilizing every possible trick in their arsenal to try to save their livelihood and resources. It’s pretty easy to assume that the ideal viewer will take this conflict seriously, but Pom Poko especially wants it to be understood how epic and desperate the stakes are for the tanuki so as to recognize the gravity of moments such as when tanuki use their testicles to cause apparently fatal car crashes or the wise elders of the resistance end up putting their future generations through grueling practices to continue the year-spanning fight.

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And Takahata certainly does well enough to establish that the Hills are worth the battle, how sacred they are to the tanuki, the casual flippancy with which the humans are attempting to occupy it in a dismissively utilitarian way. The Hills, when portrayed in robust abundant greens, are serene and tranquil before the imminent intrusion of noisy construction vehicles smashing through. The scale of certain scenes marry themselves to the tanuki’s perspective but the narrative is fluid enough for us to join the humans’ wonder at moments where the tanukis go all in on their powers of illusion. Like a parade of ghosts, demons, and spooks that’s the most eye-catching part of the entire movie. Or the grand finale of the film, responding to the melancholic and inevitable result of this fight with a warm look at the land the tanuki fight to preserve, which have now slowly muted into rustic but unlively browns as the movie has progressed, with enough persuasive power behind rich arbor to shift the ending note to an unexpected bittersweet place.

Anyway, this is not by any means a joyless film despite that intensity and lack of subtlety in its environmentalism. The music by Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon is a bouncy flutey source of fun, giving the conflict a wild lack of edge without deflating the seriousness and updating on traditional-sounding motifs. And, like Takahata would as an animation director, he’s playing with a function of the medium and this time around focusing particularly on shifting the designs of the tanuki themselves (being creatures that lend themselves such a dynamic through their shape-shifting ability even when they don’t disguise themselves as humans) in three separate styles, depending on the tone or point of view of a moment.

The most amicable of these designs is a round cartoonish bipedal look of them when happiest or laziest or just plain knocked out, used for comedic punctuation and inspired by the work of Sugiura Shigeru.

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The most common-form was more detailed anthropomorphic forms with tufts of fur resembling hair and a more grizzled rough and patchy edge to imply wear to their bodily coats. Just enough information to feel complete and whole, but also broad enough to not lose a sense of humor.

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And then, there’s the most aggressive and realistic manner – usually used in direct contact with the humans – where they are reverted to much more detailed quadruped animals, inarticulately growling or standing in headlights.

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Takahata’s deft control between the demands of each scene are probably what sells the nuance behind this bleeding-hearted appeal for humanity to preserve the generosity of nature while recognizing the inevitability of change and the necessity for mankind to grow. It’s essentially a lot better at selling the complexity of the situation than Miyazaki Hayao’s much admired conservationist more straightlaced jidaigeki Princess Mononoke, which leads to an enlightened desire to sell progress and reverence in the same breath. And in that approach towards Pom Poko, it’s clear that Takahata was easy to admire alongside his long-time friend not only on account of his fluid aesthetic decisions but also on account of honest humanity towards all areas of life.

*Akihito has expressed an interest in abdicating next year thus ending Heisei jidai.
**I am certainly not helping with that review title but you have no idea how long I tried to figure out a pun to “tanuki” before giving up.

And because I am me, I could hardly live with myself if I didn’t drop a DEEZ NUTZ!

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Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

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Discussing the highest-grossing film of 2017 six months after its release hits that sweet spot where I can just about open up with a SPOILER WARNING without worrying much about that turning away readers that weren’t already going to be turned away, yet on the other hand… I also have to reckon that almost anything I have to say about Star Wars: The Last Jedi has already been addressed, usually by better writers than I (for that is a long list). And yet the extreme responses on both sides to the film make one feel like a man without a country.

I mean, I am not neutral on the film: after watching it twice, I’ve settled on “I didn’t like it”. So I’m not onboard with the critical adoration stating it’s the best Star Wars movie of all time or since The Empire Strikes Back. And yet there’s a significant amount of criticisms towards The Last Jedi that I frankly don’t align with, even ignoring the ones I refuse to dignify involving the term “Social Justice Warrior” or complaining about the inclusion of anti-war politics, people of color, and women in significant roles. At worst, I think it’s on the same middling-to-mediocre level that every Star Wars release since 1999’s The Phantom Menace, so it’s not like I find “worst Star Wars movie” to apply to it either.

But The Last Jedi does land a lot of superlatives in my book, with the most gnawing one being the clunkiest narrative of a franchise that’s never been an exemplar of thematic depth and structural competence. Honestly, many of the criticisms regarding director/writer Rian Johnson’s screenplay are not really unique to The Last Jedi. Its unwieldy lack of balance with plotlines (essentially three but they mesh throughout) is definitely something already messed up by 2002’s much worse Attack of the Clones and its snail-in-a-black-hole pacing that leads to nowhere for an entire hour is something shared by the first two entries of the prequel trilogy. And yet, here I am finding it a lot more bothersome on three factors: Johnson’s normally a phenomenal writer and this is uncharacteristically clumsy of him, the movie is the longest in the franchise at a whopping 152 minutes, and it stresses that length by having its best elements bookended and the fairly good moments in the middle interrupted by a large chunks of bad.

The film starts on a great note with an incredible war thriller mini-movie starring Veronica Ngo about her duties as a Resistance gunner while her allies escape a First Order ambush, led by the plucky fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). It’s cut right with outright urgency by Bob Ducsay as we witness slow bomber after slow bomber destroyed in the desperate hope of taking down a Dreadnought from the point of view of Ngo’s Paige, cramped and determined in an explosive setpiece. It’s a bit overreliant on turning Star Wars battles into World War II battles with complete disregard to space physics (I mean, these bombs are DROPPED into the vaccuum of space and Ngo stands next to the open door), but it’s bombastic exciting opening spectacle.

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We cut to the remote island planet of Ahch-To, where we last left Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempting to appeal to self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach of her developing Force powers. Luke, however, has grown bitter and resentful of the Force and the Jedi way of life in consideration of how his student Ben “Kylo Ren” Solo (Adam Driver) has gone off the deep end and demands to be left alone in his misanthropic state. And herein, the story boils very efficiently: eventually Rey – with the help with the familiar pair of ol’ Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, officially taking over from Peter Mayhew) and chirpy astromech droid R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) – is able to break Luke down to give reluctant and cynical lessons on how to focus her power. However, doubts fueled by Ren and desires in Rey’s heart to discover the truth behind her origins threaten to derail her journey inward and give her answers she won’t like. Which is why this happens to be the area in which the film is the richest in character drama and development.

It’s been a popular method of detractors to cite Mark Hamill’s resentment for developing Luke as a sullen old man, ignoring that he’s rolled back on his comments, but honestly I can’t pretend I agree. It makes a whole lot more narrative sense than anything else in The Last Jedi and Hamill takes that spot to facilitate a lot of growth Luke surprises himself with when Rey breaks into his life. And Rey remains the most dynamic character to emerge from the sequel trilogy, with Ridley herself having to drive Rey’s arcs and respond to some very empty, disappointing truths about herself before using them as a launchpad for an inspiring arc of self-realization. This happens to be the moment where all of the curveballs in Johnson’s script stick, like the revelation of Rey’s parentage and the usage of evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in his MO mo-cap), but I’ll get to the criticism of the rest later.

Meanwhile, there’s the other plotlines, originally starting as just one: The First Order Dreadnought Supremacy is sadistically stalking the desperate evading Resistance forces, with the shocking capability to follow their main cruiser at light speed and make massive dents in Resistance defenses. It gets intense enough to incapacitate General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and command is now assumed by Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Holdo’s refusal to share her plans to the recently-demoted Poe leads to an extended hissy-fit-turned-mutiny that is a lot less self-aware than it receives credit for. There’s no nicer way of saying this: this plotline and the subsequent split it makes for a secret mission of ex-storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) and the Resistance technician sister to Ngo’s Paige named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) dangerous regresses nearly every character involved into a complete buffoon. The characters make decisions that end up circling the whole narrative back to the same spot an hour of character action later, even well before their floundering leads to results Leia stressed they CANNOT afford but has little affect on Poe, Finn, or Rose’s development. Finn especially goes through the exact same motivational beats he already had gone through in The Force Awakens with extra stress on turning him into a physical clown of a deserter, but all of the heroes* cast here are doing the best they can with disastrous material and barely selling fuck-ups as the actions of believable human beings in distress (in general, I think Dern outdoes Hamill as the second-best performance in the film behind Ngo and Tran has been receiving a frankly mean-spirited amount of vitriol she wouldn’t deserve even if her performance wasn’t the singular source of dedicated humane energy that it is). It just doesn’t stop the frustrating lack of thrust in a story that has too much time not to fill it up.

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And that’s ignoring the inorganic way the movie halts to directly criticize war profiteering, a clunky but noble move often mistaken as deeming The Last Jedan anti-war film which fits it about as well as Iron Man, a film that only seems to be against the bad guys having weapons. Star Wars is a Manichean environment produced by a company pretty spooked at the idea of challenging narrative norms. Moral complexity is alien to it and it’s a miracle that Luke Skywalker as a character accomplishes this, but nothing else in The Last Jedi facilitates this. Poe is rewarded for decisions that lead to a massive amount of lives lost by being promoted at the very end of this movie with Holdo, the very woman who Poe held at gunpoint after trashing her bridge, happily declaring she likes him because he’s feisty. Y’know, because he’s the good guy so that he commit such indisputable travesties. Or how about the fact that shortly after all these bodies occurred, Rose nearly kills Finn and herself in the aborting of a suicidal attack against The First Order and responds to this by saying they will win this war by “Saving the ones we love”, punctuated by her kissing Finn** while a Hitchcockian laser explosion occurs that totally added to the body count. That’s a wild misfire for a movie that is deemed anti-war.

In Johnson’s writing, there ARE fundamentally daring and engaging narrative decisions where the common criticism from the public is that they happened, while my big problem is that they were rolled back. The most notorious instance of this happens to be the apparent death and subsequent resurrection of Leia, a move that feels sincere in the wake of Fisher’s shocking death but existed before her passing and indicates an unwillingness on the part of this new trilogy to move past the legacy of the original. Or the constant feints The Last Jedi makes to affiliations and allegiances being subverted, only to return by the end of the movie to a distinct line between good guys and bad guys. Johnson’s never indicated the remotest dissatisfaction with the development of The Last Jedi and I’m sure he’s happy to have a chance of shaking things up for the duration of the movie, but all the “fake out!” resets feel like the result of the powers-that-be at LucasFilm stating “well, you have to put it right back when the movie’s over” with an Marvel-esque fidelity to their plans for Star Wars Episode IX. It makes the film feel safer than it should.

Now, I’ve long upheld that Star Wars is not an event you go to for the writing and I maintain that in this instance. In fact, some of the other elements are why I can’t damn it as hard as so many detractors seem to.

For instance, it is the best-looking Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s evident that Johnson brought his love of anime into Steve Yedlin’s cinematography with a finger on instant iconography like a character standing off against a First Order grand armada like a splash page imagined by Ralph McQuarrie or a steaming gnarled wreck of a black helmet in a glowing elevator. This movie crazy inventive with red as both an sleight-of-hand replacement for viscera (one scene halfway through the movie uses a red costume’s tatters to replace the gore of the character’s evisceration, another uses the salt-coated red surface of a planet to imply a character’s eruption and later a post-slice blood splatter) as well as just an excitably pure backdrop for the passion of battle – particularly one of the greatest lightsaber battles of the whole franchise, so many combatants cutting through a dome of bright crimson burning down to reveal the abyss of space while dealing with the space version of the armor from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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And those reds aren’t even the main showcase of production designer Rick Heinrichs and costumer Michael Kaplan. It’s actually an element of the Finn/Rose mission: the Monaco-inspired casino planet Canto Bight is one of the better elements of world-building since The Phantom Menace, various in eye-catching colors and creature designs and shimmering in an off-puttingly perfect way making it easy to understand why Finn is so easily dazzled and giving a full gap to the class lines Rose remarks upon to give the sudden politics enough heft. Or the salt planet of Crait, inventively straddling the line between desert heat and winter whites to give a relentlessly wild atmosphere for The Last Jedi‘s climax.

There is a caveat to that “Best Looking” title and it’s a significant one that hampers one of the reasons I go to a Star Wars movie in the first place: The effects are at an all-time worst. Which leaves enough room for dazzling setpieces like the opening escape, the throne room battle, the Canto Bight scene, or a moment of rapid black-and-white impact where Johnson is so proud of the imagery that he shuts off the sound for 10 seconds (you could heard the whole crowd go “whoa!” at my IMAX). But then there’s also the reminder that Snoke is the worst motion-captured character Andy Serkis has ever done, an extended setpiece involving very cartoonish animals rampaging through a planet, and Leia’s revelation as a force-user swinging back to the ship and they’re mighty worse than either of Rogue One‘s grave-robbery, largely because these effects involving living tissue as well that’s always in movement (where Rogue One‘s Tarkin and Leia occasionally were not moving) and pulls the effects further into looking like video game cutscenes. The practical effects are all fine as they always are and Star Wars otherwise still remains as competent in their effects work as an given blockbuster, but man those particular instances stick in my craw.

As does the growing dissatisfaction with John Williams’ returning as a composer for this trilogy. His cues for The Last Jedi don’t hit the depths of The Force Awakens – indeed he seems a lot more awake here, especially on Canto Bight – but his music just doesn’t seem like much more than him doing an imitation of himself this time around. And this is probably the killing blow for me: I specifically go to Star Wars for Williams’ music above anything else. His motifs don’t salvage horrible movies (“Across the Stars” is among his best and that’s from Attack of the Clones), but if his music doesn’t seem to be having fun, I’m not gonna be having fun. And the music doesn’t sound like he’s been having fun since Revenge of the Sith.

My attitude is clear: there are elements I like in The Last Jedi, but I am dismayed by the packaging. There are ideas I admire in The Last Jedi, but I find ruined by the execution. The Last Jedis not a worthless film, in fact I think it’s quite interesting enough to understand why its supporters are so very devoted to the film. It’s a giant contradiction in a fascinating way that begs re-evaluation someday on my part, much as The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi found. But not any time soon, sadly – partly because the goliath amount of time wasted does not entice me to rewatch it soon***, partly because watching it a second time with the intent on focusing on the good has only led to me finding more bad and it felt even more like a missed opportunity. Ah well, not everything has to be black and white. I can sit right in the middle of my island and stay out of the fight that Star Wars: The Last Jedhas started.

*I’m specifying “heroes” because the villains are much much worse than they already were in The Force Awakens. Domnhall Gleeson as General Hux is doing a dumber version of Ben Mendehlson’s flustering functionary work in Rogue One, Driver is tethered to the most predictable storyline Kylo Ren could have been saddled with, and Serkis is still doing nothing. I don’t want to add more problems to this review and I kind of don’t care enough about the characters to even be appalled at their treatment like I am with Finn, Rose, Poe, and Holdo, so they get a footnote and not an actual place in the review.
**They ruined Poe/Finn! Goddammit! Of course that was never canon, but the possibility of the first explicit non-heteronormative relationship in a Star Wars, erased just like that!
***There’s legend of a “fan” cut removing the women from the film which is not only sexist as fuck but wildly misses that all the best parts are starring the women. My fan cut would not remove a single millimeter of Rey or Paige’s storyline, though it would be quite liberal with the rest.

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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.

Cat People

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It has been at once amusing and bemusing to see a lot of the critical praise go to Black Panther for being “different” from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If there’s anything admirable about Black Panther‘s storytelling, it’s that it accomplishes being a great popcorn movie while being very much the same as the rest of the MCU’s style and elements. And it’s also co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler with evidently very little corporate interference (As they’d kind of have to. It’s not the first MCU film directed by a person of color – Taika Waititi just preceded Coogler with Thor: Ragnarok – but it’s the one where the most attention was brought towards it being a person of color telling a story about people of color), whose previous (and still best) film Creed also dealt with similar thematic conceits (a character dealing with the trials of his rise adjacent to an absent father) and similar aesthetical conceits (taking the elements familiar to the home franchise and arranging them in a manner that evokes surprisingly new concepts and emotions from the story).

In general, it is a film that takes the two most recent handicaps of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and surpasses them: their fixation on daddy issues and their inability to craft great action setpieces with any director not named Gunn or Russo. I’d dare say in the case of the former, it’s an active strength by expanding on that singular issue to observe much larger social elements. In the case of the former, it’s just disappointing given that Creed revolved around incredibly well-shot and edited fight sequences while Black Panther‘s are often painfully underlit and a climax involving a mess of three-tier cross-cutting and carrying some very dubious CGI.

But enough of that, I come to praise Black Panther, not to bury it, and it is a very easy film to praise. It takes place not very long after the events of Captain America: Civil War (where the character made its big-screen debut and blew nearly every other character out of the water as a presence) and wisely establishes enough of what occurred there to make it unnecessary to watch Civil War to understand what’s going on: the former Black Panther and King Wakanda T’Chaka (John Kano) was killed in an attack in Vienna, leaving his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to take up both the throne and mantle of their symbolic superhero Black Panther with uncertainty on how to helm the responsibilities inherent in these seats of power towards the isolated African nation he rules, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world.

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That sort of establishing of an African nation far more progressed than any other nation we can see in our real world (which Black Panther certainly wants us to bring Wakanda into and succeeds in making it convincingly grounded) allows for some visually rich designs in terms of production and costumes (provided by Hannah Beacher and Ruth Carter) indulging for possibly the first time in commercial cinema in the aesthetic of Afrofuturism which means exactly how it sounds: Black Panther is full of vibrant greens, reds, and blacks and especially blues bringing life to the East African biomes of grassplains and mountains and waterfalls, populating it with brilliant coded hierarchal robing and architecture that looks like the World Fair’s dreams. The design team wisely weave in between the two concepts by finding common ground in the generous usage of lines and fluid movement through hues they can utilize, most tremendously in sequences involving the ancestral plane certain characters visit – a dusky purple sky blanketing a serene serengeti landscape.

It’s quite possibly the MCU movie to date with the most visual personality and so soon after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But here I am, getting so dazzled by the designs of Black Panther that I interrupted my recap.

It is in fact insane that Boseman turned out to be possibly the best thing about Captain America: Civil War when he’s not even the best performance in his own movie and not for lack of trying. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay toss T’Challa a barrel of new political pressures that popping up one by one and give Boseman leeway to construct them into a thoughtful arc where we can actually watch T’Challa’s stance go from point A to point B (and yes, this is a political film. Not a VERY political film because Disney is scared of politics*, but its themes take observation of the state of race relations in the world from its very first scene and an awareness of Africa’s history of colonization and applies them both to the current closed borders refugee matter).

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The biggest of those pressures happens to be Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an armed forces veteran from Oakland, starts making waves enough to challenge T’Challa’s claim to the throne and bring out very violent skeletons from the late T’Chaka’s actions that T’Challa must deal with in his father’s stead, taking a leaf out of Creed‘s book once again to explore a father-son conflict with an absent father. In fact, there are two of them as Killmonger reckons with the source of all his rightful anger and hate. I’ve heard it used as a criticism that Killmonger’s clearly Black-American urban style in costume, dialogue, and performance is a coding against the sort of young African-Americans that are most targeted by police brutality in America and I honestly think that’s ignoring how much Coogler (who shares Stevens’ cinematic Oakland origins and so probably imbued a lot of his background into the character) is possibly more generous to Killmonger’s point of view than T’Challa’s**. It’s not hard to figure why Jordan, Coogler’s regular weapon of choice actor, is cast as Killmonger (other than the fact that Black Panther is already cast) and with his powerful and aggressive performance comes a perspective of the marginalized individual outside of Wakanda’s borders begging for resolution (a perspective the film aligns with sympathetically) and a core of soulful hardness most prevalent in a late scene shared with the brilliant screen partner of Sterling K. Brown (my first time seeing him perform after hearing so much hype about the actor and the hype is founded in my opinion).

Jordan, Boseman, and Brown are of course only a few of a full-on cast of extraordinary performances acting as the leads to their own stories on the side: Forest Whitaker’s secret-holding priest, Daniel Kaluuya’s frustrated herder, Letitia Wright’s scene-stealing intellectual, Winston Duke’s charming rival, Danai Gurira’s strong-willed warrior, even Andy Serkis playing Mel Gibson all embody different strands of life for T’Challa to look over and consider in his arc. Which is probably the last and greatest credit I feel I can give to Black Panther, Coogler and Cole can facilitate the narrative and themes all day and Beacher and Carter can create this dimensional environment, but it’s the cast themselves that have to inhabit it and sell every inch of its liveliness, its stakes, and its humor and I don’t think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever had an ensemble more qualified to provide that in spades.

*I believe Carvell Wallace of the New York Times said it beautifully – “The film arrives as a corporate product, but we are using it for our own purposes.”
**This is also much more apparent in the official original soundtrack created by Kendrick Lamar, of which only two songs appear in the film itself so it’s slightly extraneous but still a good and illustrative work of how Black Panther grabs hold of Killmonger’s point of view and gives it a validity even despite being unambiguous about his villainy. It is also, because I’m sure certain people around these parts know I’m a Kendrick fan and so will probably ask me, a decent album though significantly less revelatory or engaging than anything else he made in his career.

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Ocean Man

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There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.

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So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.

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It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.

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Like Rats in a Maze

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So, like… I haven’t been in the target audience of Young Adult fiction for a little under a decade now and when I was part of it, I was already looking for the door, so I might not be entirely in the know about these works. To my memory, the only major series I’ve read were Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. But, like, there’s usually some kind of social observation in the heart of it, no? Like hamfisted, absolutely undiluted social observation that you would have to be not paying attention to the unsubtle dialogue to miss. The Hunger Games had classism and the exploitative nature of the media, Harry Potter had a wizard version of the Ku Klux Klan that got more and more time as the main antagonists, Twilight for all that it ranks at the bottom barrel of things I’ve read and watched even has some muddled attempt at determinism (and Mormon looking views on romance).

So, we get The Maze Runner – one of these young adult works that I hadn’t even heard of until we suddenly had a film adaptation come out in 2014 and make enough money to have another aim at being the next Hunger Games-level box office franchise – and I just don’t get what the fuck it’s trying to be about.

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I mean, I get what it’s trying to taking inspiration from – Terrence Malick’s landscape photography in consideration of how the majority of the movie takes place in an entrapped area of forestation (and I don’t mean to insult Malick but comparing him to a movie as terrible-looking as The Maze Runner), Lord of the Flies in how it revolves around a bunch of kids isolated from society trying to create their own community – but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about any of that. Which is not only shocking, it just kind of makes me feel like I wasted my damn time worse than I already dreaded before spending two hours watching the thing. Like there was nothing to gain and it was philosophically and thematically empty from a genre that proudly wants to proclaim its themes and philosophies, adolescent as they may be, in a very urgent way.

Maybe the original novel by James Dashner, which I frankly have no intention of reading, does a better job of dicing up a message out of it. Maybe more likely is how the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (yes, the president of NBC News, that same guy. No sarcasm.), Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is so distracted by the necessity of stacking exposition dump upon exposition dump to slowly seep out some summary of what is happening to actually concern itself with depth and theme. I don’t think that excuses itgiven that Divergent – another flipping Young Adult novel adaptation that’s desperately tried (and hilariously failed) to be the next Hunger Games – was also a movie packed to the brim with world-building exposition dump and you’d still be able to takeaway that story’s appeal to the importance of individualism, even if you had watched it blindfolded or with earmuffs or upside down (not at the same time, though. Be serious.) Still it’s just plausible that such was the case with The Maze Runner.

Those exposition dumps happen to be showing us how a young man we learn later to be named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a large plain of grass called the Glade inhabited by several other boys mostly devoid of personality beyond their pragmatic status and none of these statuses seem remotely interesting except that of a Runner, the boys who are selected to run everyday into the walls that surround their little plain and try to find a way out of the maze within, running back to the community before the doors to the wall close every night and trap them in the maze lest they be attacked by a bunch of giant CGI monsters called Grievers. This is like… the premise of a movie, not a full on plot and yet it takes The Maze Runner more than 2/3 of its runtime to lay that all out. It’s not even world-building because everything they’re explaining and elaborating on is confined to the Glade and the Maze, nothing else.

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And some of these things are of course delivered in some manner that has to do with the element of cutting and framing in cinema, like the sort of impressively trapped and uncomfortable flurry of opening shots where Thomas is practically launched into the Glade in unstoppable motion and quickly shifted from surrounding him from dark walls behind a steel cage into surrounding him from blinding light and laughter and boyish eyes no less confusing before he faceplants from fear. But that’s like it. That’s the only worthwhile moment conceived out of Wes Ball’s direction in the whole movie. The rest of that exposition through cutting is in the case of randomly clunked up flashbacks of Thomas’ time before the Glade, spurred on by Teresa’s (Kaya Scodelario) arrival into the Glade. Kind of glad there’s no “sexual tension” amongst these apparent teens played by guys in their 20s and 30s, but like… there’s practically no reaction to her arrival.

None except from the central antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), who brings the closest thing this movie could ever have to tangible conflict given how much of it is still just developing itself. Like all the other boys, Gally supplies more exposition but this time with a permanent scowl (without much effort, Poulter is best in show given how his face – particularly his eyebrows – compliments angry looks and he has an imposing build) and a tone of “I don’t trust these new folk” towards Thomas and Teresa (even though the implication is that THEY all were slowly sent into the Glade progressively so, like, aren’t they all new folk?).

Anyway, I think the film eventually figures out it’s running out of time and tries to have the reveals expand more in scope in a more accelerated fashion as it reaches its end and tries to actually make good on suggesting the state of a world beyond the maze, but it all felt like ambling and idling until the last three minutes when the literal plot police (I mean, fucking literal!) show up and tell them what’s going on with the franchise beyond before scooping them up and taking them out of the movie.

I mean, I get that maybe the premise of The Maze Runner isn’t my thing. But it’s not my thing because it seems like a concept that, unless under a skilled writer and director, can only be hamstrung be its self-imposed limitations. And I don’t think high enough of Young Adult works to think they usually house skilled writers and directors. And Ball and company have to work sooooo fucking hard to make a movie feel as unrewarding a waiting game as this. So why put myself through this? You assholes saw Maze Runner: The Death Cure enough to have it top the weekend box office and forced my fucking hand and now I’m covering it. I hate you all.

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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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Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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