Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Beauty and the Bleh!

I originally wanted this rant to be about the Oscars. However, aside from them being a soft-spot for me, this year’s ceremony was actually quite pleasant and a nice distraction from the grander situation of the world. Besides, my thoughts can be summed up as follows: the awards ceremony is all opinions. The Academy has its share of problems, but whining about the winners is like getting mad that you lost at the racetracks. It’s pointless and petty.

Anyway, let’s talk Disney.

I have a love-hate relationship with Disney. On one hand, I respect much of their output, past and present, and think they’ve been taking a lot of long-overdue risks lately. On the other hand, they’re not only the equivalent of an artistic slot-machine, with their output of being all-over qualitatively, but they like milking properties for all they’re worth. Take their recent decision to remake all of their animated films in live-action. For a while, the results were ghastly, which made me sad. But recently Disney’s decided to interject their post-modernist trend into more faithful remakes, and the results have been solid. Cinderella was mostly on-par with the 1950 classic, but part of that was because of Kenneth Branagh’s directing. The Jungle Book, however, was awesome, while Pete’s Dragon managed to surpass its predecessor by sheer fact that it was competent.

The success of Disney’s crop of “literalist remakes” has opened the doors to a flood of prospects, some hopeful (Mulan) and others questionable (Aladdin). However, none are more peculiar than the one slated for a release in a few weeks, aka Beauty and the Beast:

Beauty and the Beast: The Abridged Series. (Courtesy of Disney Movie Trailers.)

On one hand, this is unfair. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite Disney movies, let-alone one of my favourite animated films. It was the first animated movie to earn a Best Picture nomination at The Academy Awards in 1992, and has remained one of three to ever receive that prestigious honour. The soundtrack is one of Disney’s finest. Even outside of Disney being on a role lately with their remakes, making this work would be difficult for anyone!

On the other hand, it’s not impossible. The trailers have been decent, with each one seeming to capture what made the original special. The casting has been spot-on, and Emma Watson seems to be giving it her all as Belle. The effects have also, not surprisingly, been strong, with the character designs translating nicely into CGI. Despite my reservations, I’ve kept an open-mind…until now.

See, Disney’s been releasing some clips to entice viewers. Call them “appetizers”, I guess. So far two have caught my interest, and to describe them both in a word would be…meh. However, to properly understand, I need to show them to you:

Oh yeah, this is a musical… *Yawn* (Courtesy of Disney Movie Trailers.)

Right away, we can already see the problem: the songs. The choreography isn’t bad, nor is the song, but it lacks…oomph. It’s as if everyone’s daydreaming their way through their lines. It doesn’t help that Watson, despite being the most-committed, lacks the excellent vocal chops of Paige O’Hara. It’s a shame because her voice isn’t bad, but it’s not instantly melodic. O’Hara had the instant one-up of bringing dimension to an admittedly-one note character, and it’s almost unfair to compare her to Watson.

But I have to, because the scene calls attention to itself. It’s trying to match the kinetic energy of the opening number from the 1991 film, and it’s failing. The crowd looks bored, the actors and actresses are putting minimal effort in, even Watson, like I said, can’t keep up with what’s expected of her. And, lest we forget, the rapid succession of gags from the 1991 film are absent. Animation thrives on the speed of jokes in ways that live-action can’t possibly achieve, meaning that every second can have a gag without you even catching it initially. I wasn’t fond of every attempt at humour in the original, but it was still trying.

Yet the problem repeats itself with this number later on:

Man, what an empty scene! (Courtesy of Disney Movie Trailers.)

Someone I follow on Twitter put it best: there are more people in this scene than in the original, yet there’s far less energy. Because it’s true. Ignoring that Josh Gad is a better Olaf than a LeFou, and that Luke Evans lacks the baritone pipes of Richard White, there are next to none of the great gags from the original. “Gaston” was a vanity number, yes, but it had some excellent visuals to compliment some of the lines. I appreciate the neck snap in the remake, that was funny, but without Gaston’s egg trick or belt snap it’s…empty.

On top of that, again, the number lacks energy. There are more people this time around, but, like with the previous clip, they look and sound unenthusiastic. They come off like they’re mumbling their lines, and that Gad can’t even keep up with the music is embarrassing. Where’s the effort? Where’s the fun? I once saw a Purim play at my synagogue that spoofed this song in its opening…and it still had more energy!

You see my problem? I don’t want this to fail. And it’s not like the rest of the movie will automatically suck, because it might not. But I’m not looking forward to this. I’m dreading the idea of this remake more and more, wishing that Disney had gone with The Black Cauldron instead. Even The Jungle Book, which also had musical numbers in it, had way more energy, and that remake didn’t need songs! If a more conventional, live-action remake of a Disney classic can’t get its songs right, then what hope do I honestly have?

Maybe I’m being unfair. It’s possible that this is unfinished test footage meant to pull the wool over my eyes. It’s possible that the end-result will be better, and that I need to watch the movie to really appreciate the cues. But for now, colour me unimpressed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Spielbergian Connundrum

Steven Spielberg is one of my favourite directors. I’m not a fan of everything he’s done, I don’t really care for the Indiana Jones franchise, but he’s an example of a timeless director who somehow transcends the 45+ years he’s been active in the field. But has he peaked? Have his glory days passed, or does he still have claim to continue? In other words, should Steven Spielberg retire?

This is something I’ve been contemplating for a few years, especially with his recent fascination with biopics and dramas. It’s fitting, especially given that it’s the high peak of Oscar season at the moment, but I think this could’ve been written at any time. It could’ve been written in 2011 following the release of War Horse. It could’ve been written in 2012 following the release of Lincoln. It could’ve even been written in 2015 following the release of Bridge of Spies. However, I decided to get around to it following this review of last year’s The BFG, a movie I thought was fine, yet was disheartened to see used as a springboard for a discussion of whether or not Spielberg’s still relevant.

As a disclaimer, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Doug Walker and his crew. I think he’s insightful as a commentator, and his editorials are as on-point as his Nostalgia Critic reviews. But I’d be lying if I said that his 80’s childhood bias isn’t grating. It’s not inherently bad, as I also have nostalgia for my 90’s childhood, but when it gets in the way of being fair and honest, then there’s a serious problem.

Steven Spielberg is one of the four, major “Movie Brats” of the 70’s and 80’s that include George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. (One could make the case for Woody Allen too, but he really got his start in the late-60’s and isn't relevant here.) He’s also, not surprisingly, the one that’s endured the longest in the hearts of Western film buffs. This is because Francis Ford Coppola eventually petered out, while George Lucas never grew beyond Star Wars and Martin Scorsese largely only caters to a certain subset of film-goers. Spielberg’s biggest strength was that he was willing to diversify, something made easier by the Hollywood of the 70’s and 80’s allowing for that. So while Spielberg could one day make a sci-fi thriller like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he could follow it up another day with a family-film like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, a family-horror film like Jurassic Park and a straight-up drama like Schindler’s List.

This has also led to his fair share of criticism. For one, he’s been accused of simplistic sentimentalism, especially in-relation to his peers. Spielberg VS Kubrick debates still take place online, even though Spielberg and Kubrick were friends and admired one-another greatly. And two, people keep arguing that he’d peaked in the 80’s and 90’s, and that everything post-2001 was him “petering out”. That’s where the conflict of the video I mentioned earlier comes into question, as I believe it’s arrogant to claim that a director you used to love is a hack because they don’t cater to you anymore (in that vein, see James Cameron and Avatar.)

Now, I’m the kind of film-goer who doesn’t care about genre, so long as it’s good. It could be fantasy, sci-fi or drama, I’ll watch it if it’s worth my time. Even sports movies, which I’m not the biggest fan of, will catch my interest from-time-to-time, with Rush being one of my favourite biopics of the last 5 years. So Spielberg being my fancy in any form is expected, be it fantasy, sci-fi, or hard drama, and I really wish that many of his fans would appreciate his different flavours. Unfortunately, they don’t.

On one hand, I can see why they don’t. There was a period of time, right between Catch Me If You Can and Lincoln, where he was struggling to make films that pleased both audiences and critics alike. Spielberg being all-over qualitatively is nothing new, his filmography has always been hit-or-miss, but that 10 year window of time was a real challenge for him. In fact, Spielberg’s highest-rated film of that era, Munich, still received fairly-mixed reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. So yeah, claims of “artistic stagnancy” aren’t unfounded.

On the other hand, they’re complete bupkis for three reasons. Firstly, Spielberg has, like I said, always been hit-or-miss. We remember his work fondly, but for every Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws he had a 1941 or Always. Even Hook, which many people my age remember fondly, wasn’t exactly a masterpiece. Spielberg’s directorial body of work is massive, so there are bound to be quite a few misses.

Two, the complaints against Spielberg existed before he was “stagnant”; in fact, the early days of his career were met with much skepticism from old guard critics, many of whom thought he was childish and shallow. I think the opening of this 1981 review of Raiders of the Lost Ark tells all:
“Even before you see Raiders of the Lost Ark, after you’ve read the ads and gotten some sense of the reviews, you know that the picture is offering you a pact: you agree to be a kid again, in return for which Raiders will give you old-time movie thrills expressed in slick modern cinematic terms.

No, thanks.”

I try to give critics the benefit of the doubt, since they get enough crap from moviegoers as is, but this opening reeks of “Spielberg didn’t make my kind of movie”. Ironically, I hear this claim now too, except that it’s the reverse. Where as Raiders of the Lost Ark, once considered a waste because it “was too silly”, is now looked upon as a serial-action masterpiece, Lincoln, a talk-heavy biopic, is considered a waste because “it’s too serious”. And the group defending the former is the one condoning the latter!

And thirdly, it’s Steven Spielberg. The man has earned the right to make whatever kind of movie he wants. So what if The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin were all only okay? Have you seen Lincoln and/or Bridge of Spies? And yeah, The BFG wasn’t anything great, but so what?

I think we also forget that Spielberg crafting dramas is nothing new. The 80’s might’ve seen the emergence of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones franchise, but in-between that and Jurassic Park he was crafting dramas like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, films that launched the careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Christian Bale into the mainstream. He even followed up Jurassic Park with Schindler’s List in the same year! Dramatic Spielberg is still Spielberg, regardless of whether or not fans will admit it.

So no, I don’t think Steven Spielberg has become irrelevant. But if you’re concerned, his next film, Ready Player One, is based on a sci-fi novel. And after that, he’s making another Indiana Jones movie. Have fun!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The LEGO Cinematic Universe?

Cinematic universes are tricky. On one hand, they require planning and a sense of overarching cohesion. On the other hand, they have to do that while still functioning on a microcosmic level. So far, the MCU seems to be making this look easy, while every other attempt at pulling this off has failed. (I’d argue Harry Potter franchise managed it before the MCU was conceptualized, but that may or may not count since it was a book series first.)

Fortunately, that’s about to change. Remember The LEGO Movie, that fun, quirky film that looked like stop-motion animation? It has a sequel now in the form of The LEGO Batman Movie, and, assuming LEGO continues this trend with The LEGO Ninjago Movie, well…we might actually get the first successful answer to the MCU.

Before you say anything, I’m as surprised as you are. Despite its initial trailer being cute, I didn’t think much of The LEGO Movie at first. Sure, it was being directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, two individuals capable of taking dumb concepts and making them work, but it was LEGO. I loved building cars and houses as a kid, but I doubted something like that warranted a high-budget film, let-alone a good one. And it had Will Ferrell in it, aka a man not known for picking the best roles. Still, the film ended up being my favourite of 2014 and made a lot of money at the box office, so now we have a sequel centred around Batman.

Right upfront, The LEGO Batman Movie isn’t as good as its immediate predecessor. The initial wow-factor is absent, and even outside of being more focused, it lacks the immediate punch of The LEGO Movie. Its core aesthetic and humour also aren’t quite as fresh either, with more jokes not landing. But I say that in the same way that I’d say Finding Dory is a downgrade from Finding Nemo: we all know what I thought of that film, so it’s not a big deal.

What makes The LEGO Batman Movie, not to mention the cinematic universe it’s a part of, work is that it knows how to construct a world that links to a grander design, yet doesn’t sacrifice individual uniqueness or enjoyment. Where as both are part of a grander universe, they barely connect outside of mild cameos and an aesthetic style. Fans of the first movie will get a kick out of hearing Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as Green Lantern and Superman respectively, but the two films are really their own entities. The LEGO Movie was a send-up to how Hollywood has functioned since the late-70’s, while The LEGO Batman Movie is more a send-up to the evolution that Batman has undergone over the last 90 years. Both movies can be watched without a need for prior context, something even the MCU struggles with.

And you know what? This suits Warner Bros. better than the continuity-heavy universe of the DCEU. While Marvel has always built its film brand under continuing adventures with connective tissues, Warner Bros. has largely treated its franchise properties as separate. True, Harry Potter and The Matrix are both well-known franchises under the WB label, as is the Lord of the Rings series, but they’ve never felt a need to cross over. Warner Bros. has let them be their own ventures, so suddenly creating an interconnected continuity is tricky. Factor in that Warner Bros. has proven themselves inept at translating live-action superheroes that aren’t Batman and Superman to the big-screen, and even then only under the right talent, and it’s no wonder the DCEU has been struggling.

All the more reason why the LEGO approach appears to be boding well for Warner Bros. (aside from, y’know, having some of the best talent in the industry working on it.) For one, the lack of timeline continuity allows for greater freedom. Any and all LEGO films need not be connected outside of writing and animation style, which is a real advantage for creative freedom. And two, allowing for that freedom means Warner Bros. can do whatever it so desires without feeling bogged down by unreasonable expectations. This means that The LEGO Movie can criticize studio action movies, The LEGO Batman can self-parody Batman and superhero tropes and the upcoming The LEGO Ninjago Movie, from what I’ve gathered based on trailers, can poke fun at Eastern martial arts films from a Western perspective.

I only hope Warner Bros. picks up on this freedom and learns from it with their DCEU films. I doubt they will, DC isn’t known for taking much risk with its properties, but my hopes are still present; after all, I enjoy the LEGO film universe more than what the MCU has to offer. I definitely like the MCU, don’t get me wrong, but their films suffer somewhat from the pre-planned design that Kevin Feige has for them. LEGO has no restrictions outside of aesthetic and humour, so each entry feels more organic. And while not all entries will be equal qualitatively, it’s not such a big deal when the possibilities are endless.

So yes, I’m excited for the prospect of a LEGO Cinematic Universe, or whatever the eventual name for the franchise turns out to be. It’s a tongue-and-cheek jab at the modern need to connect everything to a specific franchise, but it does so while still having a backbone by which to connect. The humour is crude and childish, but in a fun way that adults can enjoy. And it looks amazing, although that last part is expected with theatrical animation these days. I only hope The LEGO Ninjago Movie turns out to be yet another success, as I’m craving a bi-yearly dose of film parody to counter-balance the dour portentousness in a lot of modern-day action films.