Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fantastic Franchises and How to Build Them

If you’ll recall in my Spectre piece last year, I mentioned that the movie’s biggest problem was that it failed at its half-baked franchise building. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, “world building” has been the in-trend since the MCU became big, with many franchises attempting to capitalize on this concept without understanding what made it work. The end-result has seen a series of properties splintered and joined together in hopes of “getting it right”, much to everyone’s embarrassment. So now comes the Harry Potter property's turn with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel to the beloved franchise with a script hemmed by the author herself. But is it any good?

That was my biggest concern ever since the film was announced. Originally meant as a solo outing, it quickly stretched to a trilogy and then a quintilogy. The films were to centre around Newt Scamander, whose worldly travels with a magical briefcase would lead him through many shenanigans. The films would also tie-in with the canon proper, including a subplot surrounding the rise and fall of Gillert Grindelwald, to keep long-time Potter fans invested. It seemed almost pointless to make these films, especially since we didn’t need them. Still, they were being written by JK Rowling, so I gave this first movie a shot.

And, in all honesty, it’s actually quite decent. It won’t win any awards or anything, nor does it rival the best of the Harry Potter films, but I found myself surprisingly enjoying it. Even taking out the mixed expectations, there’s a viable argument in hindsight for this sort of world building exercise that makes it well-worth your time. The main reason is that, when you remove the decently-written story, there’s actually room to build on the Harry Potter lore.

I won’t give away the plot, since it’s not that deep and is best experienced blind, but it definitely compensates for feeling somewhat, if Bob Chipman’s review is anything to go by, fan-fiction heavy. Those familiar with Harry Potter lore will be well-acquainted with characters like Scamander and Grindenwald, and that’s really whom this film is meant for. It’s not breaking new territory, nor will it appeal to the unconverted, but for those who grew up with Rowling’s classic series (like me) and watched all 8 prior films in theatres, it’ll definitely feel like a homecoming. For everyone else, it’s a period-piece action drama set in the US, one that’s definitely entertaining in spite of its shortcomings.

Of which there are a few. I’m not in entire agreement with Chipman, I find that he sometimes gets too fixated on details and uses them to be overly-critical, but I’ll be the first to point out that Eddie Redmayne isn’t the best choice for a movie to centre around. I don’t hate him, he’s proven himself a great physical actor, but he can definitely be grating and has limited range. The movie didn’t need to pick him as the lead, it could’ve easily gone to someone else, but I guess it’s too late to complain about that.

The movie also feels like an exercise in shameless world building every-now-and-then. It mostly holds up, but it’ll occasionally drop a reference that no one but die-hards will get. It’s a tactic that the MCU is guilty of too, except that the MCU also generally shows restraint. This movie doesn’t, even shamelessly setting itself up for sequels from the get-go, and it can be grating. Besides, not every franchise needs to be an MCU-rip-off.

The film also divulges into several subplots, leaving its main story, which is pretty short, on the back-burner. There’s a story involving a side-character and his personal life, which is resolved in the final scene. There’s a story involving another side-character and his personal life, which becomes the third-act climax. And there’s a story about a third side-character and her fall from grace, which is resolved in the film’s resolution. There’s even a completely-last-minute-yet-still-fitting twist that’s left open for a sequel on purpose. All of these subplots are fine, but they can feel cluttered amidst a really short main story.

Speaking of side-characters, I should address the elephant in the room and mention Johnny Depp. He plays a really minor role, but his presence, especially in-light of recent allegations of abuse, is bound to anger many people. I can’t say they’re wrong, abuse is abuse, but too many actors and actresses these days have skeletons in their closets. We should be critical of their foul behaviour, but, like I argued in my previous blog entry, boycotting on principle leaves you avoiding far too much quality art. Not like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a masterpiece, but my philosophy of differentiating art from artist remains intact.

The visual effects are also amazing. Many past Harry Potter films, particularly some of the later ones, have been accused of lacklustre CGI, due in part to their short gestation cycles, yet were easily forgiven due to strong writing and acting. This movie seems to have learned that lesson, as every special effect, right down to the floating scenes, is well-designed and weighty, making them the most-believable of all the Harry Potter films to-date. It’s also gorgeous to boot.

Like I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It’s nothing amazing, but neither were half of the Harry Potter films, and I still enjoyed them. Besides, it did the impossible and managed to copy the MCU’s world building without it feeling forced, something not even The Hobbit Trilogy could do. If the movie can pull that off, on top of being enjoyable, then it’s doing something right!

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Passion of the Gibson

There are many ways I can start this piece off: War is Hell. Sticking to your ideals, so long as they’re not unhealthy, is admirable. Andrew Garfield has made penance for his time as Spider-Man. There are many biopics about WWII. However, I figured I’d be honest and mention that I hate Mel Gibson.

It’s weird saying that, since I’m aware that he’s a talented actor and director. I also realize that he’s always been quirky, dating back to his debut in the late-70’s. But it’s true: not only is the man a rabid Antisemite, something confirmed with The Passion of the Christ, but he’s also nuts. And while I normally try to separate art from artist, since I’d end up not enjoying anything otherwise, Mel Gibson remains that one, hypocritical exception. The only film he’s in that I can still tolerate is Chicken Run, because it’s only his voice. Also, being on Hollywood’s blacklist since 2004 has made it that much easier for me to avoid him.

Which leads me to Hacksaw Ridge, a biopic about a WWII medic who saved 75 men’s lives without ever firing a gun. When I first heard about this movie, I was intrigued…until I heard that Mel Gibson had directed it. That’s when my heart sank and I began, perhaps selfishly, praying for its critical and financial failure. Even with reviews being positive, I was uneasy: it looked good, but how could I justify watching a film by a man who yelled at a Jewish police officer for stopping him for driving drunk? The guilt would be immense, but I try to separate art from artist, so…

For those who don’t know, Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, an idealistic, Seventh-Day Adventist from white family in Virginia whose father’s a struggling alcoholic that served in WWI. From a young age, Desmond grew up being taught that violence was wrong and that taking lives was the greatest sin of all. It was this moral upbringing that led him to enlist during WWII, but with a catch: he refused to fire a gun. Initially taunted by his peers, his request was eventually granted by the time he left for Okinawa. Fortunately, Desmond’s pacifist determinism also brought with it intense compassion for human life, and he’d go on to save 75 of his comrades from the treachery of Hacksaw Ridge.

Right away, the film’s biggest hook is idealism trumping realism. Desmond Doss is frequently portrayed as a saint, a man sticking up for his beliefs. It’s also really easy for a story like this to over-revel in religious iconography, something that’s become a problem in mainstream religious cinema. Yet Hacksaw Ridge escapes that trap by keeping its characters grounded. It never loses sight of its humanity, even with its hero, and for that reason it remains the most-balanced, pro-religion movie in recent memory. As a religious person, I can’t help but respect that.

Fortunately, the second-half of the film is about the abject horrors of war. You’d expect Gibson, who directed the Oscar-winning Braveheart in the 90’s, would know his way around war, but he really lets loose here. The battles at Hacksaw Ridge are bloody, violent and over-the-top, as well as replete with high tension and many effectively-integrated jump scares. Gibson paints the battlefield as a place of nightmares, and there’s a sense of aimlessness and confusion. You’re as lost and alone as the characters are, which is precisely the point.

And this is where Desmond really shines. As I said before, Desmond was a pacifist who refused to injure another person. He was also incredibly-crafty, guided by a sense of mushy-gushy optimism and trust in others. It was this craftiness that enabled him to think outside the box, which was crucial in order to do his job correctly. The movie states that Desmond Doss saved 75 men in the battle of Hacksaw Ridge, including his superior officer, before being wounded himself during the final resistance, and, if the above is indication, it’s easy to see why.

Two points are also worth noting. First, there’s a lot of racist language in this film, yet, like Django Unchained, it never feels out of place due to context of time period. And two, the film has surprisingly strong performances from Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn. That might not seem like a big deal, but given how bland the two actors’ careers have been, as well as their incredibly-limited range, to get such strong performances from them and have it feel natural is a treat. I, honestly, think they should pair up with Gibson again in the future.

I was pleasantly surprised by Hacksaw Ridge. If rooting for Mel Gibson to succeed is like rooting for a recovering addict after several relapses, then consider this a high-point in a troubled man’s life. I only hope he takes himself in the right direction, as I might end up-

Wait, he’s announced a sequel to The Passion of the Christ?! *Sigh* So much for wishful thinking! Here’s to another 10 years of hating you!