Onward (2020)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon Written by: Scanlon, Keith Bunin and Jason Headley

Onward_posterPrior to seeing Onward I saw brief interviews with its writer-director Dan Stanlon. Scanlon spoke of how the film was inspired by his own relationship with his brother and father. He then called Pixar a special company, because it takes chances on “real” stories such as his own.  On the one hand it is easy to see why Scanlon would say this: imagine getting the opportunity to turn one of your defining life-stories into a mass-watched fantasy epic! 

On the other hand, Scanlon’s one-liner about Pixar’s uniqueness is revisionist history. It erases what has actually made the studio iconic. In my review of Toy Story 4 I argued there were two distinct eras of Pixar filmmaking: Toy Story-to-Ratatouille and Wall-E-to-the-present. The key distinction between these eras is that Wall-E, along with some of the films that followed it, is almost too depressing to be a family movie.

Alternatively, one could argue that it was Ratatouille that started the modern Pixar era. Ratatouille is an inventive and funny family film. Unlike Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, it doesn’t beg for an Oscar via tear-jerker moments. Nonetheless, Ratatouille’s formula differs in a key way from earlier Pixar films. Prior to Ratatouille, Pixar made movies based around concrete categories: toys, bugs, monsters, sea-creatures, superheroes and cars. Rataoutille may star rats, but it is not a “rat” movie. Unlike the Toy Story films, which deal with the toy-specific problems of “realness” and “obsolescence,” Rataoutille’s story is a human tale, albeit one with rodent characteristics.

Onward is a Ratatouille-style Pixar film. While it is nominally about fantasy creatures, its stars are highly anthropomorphic, and their struggles largely transcend their Elvin identities. The film explains that the same technologies that we enjoy became available in its fantasy realm. Because magic is supposedly difficult to use, the arrival of electricity, cars, etc rendered it obsolete. 

Onward is also a clear product of the Wall-E era (though unlike the older movie, Onward is unequivocally kid friendly). Sadness is introduced to the film right away as we are introduced to brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is celebrating his sixteenth birthday, and on the occasion is reminded of the absence of his deceased father. 

The plot takes off as Ian and Barley’s mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents the boys with a gift left behind by their father: a magic staff. The staff contains a spell to temporarily resurrect the father, but a shortcoming in the spell’s execution sends the boys off on a road-trip in search of further magic. 

The character of Barley is one of the film’s strongpoints. A Dungeons & Dragons nerd, and civilly-disobedient protector of magical-heritage-buildings, Barley has nuance as a character. While his hobbies make him seem like your traditional, goofball sidekick, he is in fact a fairly competent young-man. Unfortunately, his conservative-suburban society is biased against his particular competences. Pixar has produced a good-roster of sidekick-protagonists over the years: Buzz Lightyear, Mike Wazowski, Dory and Sadness, but with Barley, Scanlon and his co-writers came up with a memorably subversive way to deploy the sidekick role. 

Less compelling for me, however, was Ian. Onward, in the broadest sense, shares a narrative formula with Finding Nemo. Both stories are rooted in the death of a young parent. Both are road-trip movies. And both road trips pair a worry-wart protagonist with a goofy sidekick. But this is where the difference between pre-Ratatouille and post-Ratatouille Pixar comes in. Finding Nemo is rooted in the category of “sea-creatures.” As such, its parental death is specific to the marine context. Viewers are lulled into a wonderful-life under the sea, but then made to live through a sea-specific-specific danger as it takes its terrible toll. Finding Nemo’s protagonist Marlin is shaped by an obvious trauma, and we viewers share in that trauma. 

Onward by contrast is not a film whose narrative pieces all come from a category. While pre-Wall-E Pixar films can have sad moments, Onward set out to be sad from the get go. It has no scene that compares to Nemo’s barracuda moment. Instead, it just has expository dialogue where Ian and his Mom tell us how they feel, and consequently how the movie would like viewers to feel.  This discrepancy continues throughout the films’ runs. While Marlin develops due to a combination of friendship, quirky luck and genuine learning, all of which stem naturally from his aquatic-context, Ian is regularly set up with situations where it is overtly stated that he just has to “believe in himself” or otherwise do the right thing.

Onward is a cautionary tale of how deriving a fictional-universe from emotions and ideas, instead of doing it the other way around, can make those ideas come across as predictable and plot-stunting. Toy Story found its depth, not by repeating familiar platitudes of human sentimentality, but through exploring the theoretical anxieties of plastic beings. A Bug’s Life, meanwhile, is a great example of a “we are the 99%” fable, because it doesn’t force that message on viewers. Rather builds to it as it observes the collectivist yet conservative dynamics within an ant-colony. 

On the other hand, Onward is undoubtedly a wonderfully imaginative film, and there are some interesting ideas in its core plot. Critical as I am of the way Ian’s self-doubt and sadness are portrayed, at very least, the epiphany he has at the film’s climax is a clever one. Hopefully Pixar can remember what made its early films classics, and return to this formula in the future. Onward may be a stumbling block in that regard, but its celebration of benevolent-nerdiness and nostalgia at very least makes it worth the watch.  

Color Out of Space (2019)

Directed by: Richard Stanley

Written by: Stanley, and Scarlett Amaris 

Based on a short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterThe person I went to see Color Out of Space with and I had very different motives for going. I was driven by my recent discovery of Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of acting, and by the film’s Diamantino-esque, indie-bizzaro  poster. My companion, by contrast, was intrigued by the film’s source material: a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Going to a film because you are eager to see a written piece re-enacted, and going because you want to seen an auteur’s provocative new work are two fundamentally different mindsets. Therefore, I may not be be able to pitch this film to Lovecraftian purists, but I can otherwise recommend Color Out of Space on the grounds that it offers a memorable, if not perfect viewing experience

Color Out of Space opens to teenager Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) casting (presumably fake) spells, in a wooded area, where she is confronted by Ward (Elliot Knight), a city water inspector. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the rest of Lavinia’s family. She has two younger brothers, one, Jack, who is quite young (Julian Hilliard), and another, Benny (Brendan Meyer), who is around her age and  is a bit of stoner. Their mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), works an intense financial job from home and was recently treated for breast cancer. Their father,  Nathan (Nicola Cage), straddles the line between being folksy and a leader as he champions the family’s new experimental and rural lifestyle.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review using the term “thorough horror,.” It is one I coined to refer jointly to It: Chapter One, mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. All three films appealed to me because they were not simply about a central terror, but rather built universes rife with the scary and strange (ie their horror was thorough).

I lost my appetite for thorough horror, when I went to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary. While widely lauded by indie film fans, for me Hereditary was a work that had subjected its “horror” too much to its “thoroughness.” Its plot felt more like a collection of horror motifs than an actual horror story.

In its first, or perhaps first two, acts Color Out of Space has the same problem as Hereditary. Numerous potentially off-putting things take place:  Ward’s concern about undrinkable water, Savinia’s magic, and the warnings of Ezra the squatter-stoner (Tommy Chong). This perilous air  is further built upon by the film’s other eccentricities e.g. Nicolas Cage’s occasional cartoonish acting. All of this latent-horror, however, feels like wasted potential in much of the film’s early moments. We are reminded again and again that something might be off, but the script never allows us to get too excited about the specifics.

One of the film’s structural problems is its failure to develop one character as its protagonist. Is the soft-spoken and concerned Ward, for instance, supposed to be the hero? He could could be, but he’s not around that often, and his personality is kind of bland. What about Lavinia? Well, she has a strong first scene, but then she melts into the film’s fabric as a normal kid with a slightly eccentric hobby. Nathan? Well, he’s the most charismatic character (and played by the most famous actor), and his ideas and doubts might make him protagonist material, but like Ward and Lavinia, he oscillates in out of relevance.

Color Out of Space, however, has an ultimate twist that makes up for its early “mistakes.” While the film’s story may feel like it centres around the overly vague plot-goal of “descent into madness,” I believe its resolution becomes more satisfying if one catches the little bit of explicit moralizing the film offers. H.P. Lovecraft was famous for being a solitary figure. And to this day his stories of the “strange” offer a world for the lonely to cling onto. While at times Color Out of Space is rendered dull by the realism of its relationships (yes, it is possible to apply that word to this movie of pink meteorites and troublesome alpacas), it is nonetheless a work about eccentric, troubled and isolated protagonists. And when such protagonists are given the choice between seeking the acceptance of a mediocre society and leaning into the outright terror of their strangeness, their choice may surprise you.

Not all of Lovecraft is timeless; his racist side has recently been the subject of public discourse. In Stanley’s adaptation, however, Ward is portrayed by a black actor. While Ward never fully understands the ways of the outsider Gardner family, he treats them with more empathy than his fellow townsfolk. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but I read the Ward character as a way of drawing a bridge (albeit an opaque, incomplete one) between Lovecraftian social-outsiders, and those rendered outsiders in other senses of the word. No one can truly crack the mystery of the Gardners, but at least Ward can position himself to be the detective.

Color Out of Space is a film that has great potential to frustrate. Perhaps its modernness and occasional bursts of comedy will alienate Lovecraftian purists, while its early-lack of direction will alienate casual film goers. I’ve heard it said that Lovecraft’s original story might be unadaptable, since the source text is about an indescribable color with a vast scope of power. The abstraction of this idea is indeed a hard one to convey in the cinematic format, but I think Stanley pulled it off. Color Out of Space takes a story about a bizarre phenomenon and echoes that bizarreness in its narrative structure. At first you may expect Color Out of Space to be about characters, but it’s not: it’s more the story of a collective. If you want you could be more abstract in your description. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is literally about an alien color, but if you went there with your description, I wouldn’t say you were wrong.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (2019)

Written and directed by: Dean DeBlois

How_to_Train_Your_Dragon_3_poster                 I went into How to Train Your Dragon 3 prepared for a range of possible viewing experiences. On the one hand, I remembered liking the previous films in the series, but on the other hand I could not say I remembered much about them. Luckily, on this occasion, my enjoyment of the series held up, and my foggy memory of the characters more-than held up too.

In a way, my non-memory of the series was a gift. I had forgotten how fantastic the character’s colourful Viking-and-dragon community of Berk looks. In its early world-building moments, How to Train Your Dragon 3 inducts viewers into a comfortingly-chaotic paradise. This moment, it should be said, is no mere visual showcase, but also plays into the film’s well thought out plot arc, foreshadowing a dilemma its protagonists ultimately face, however.

How To Train Your Dragon 3 is not simply a visual feat, but is well constructed as a script. Though I half recognized all-of-them, Berk’s roster of supporting characters is substantial, and many of these characters have an associated quirk. What is striking, however, is that, unlike in more run of the film animated-family films, many of these characters manage to be more than their quirks. The character of Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) for example, combines a unique, sometimes zoned-out demeanor, an obsession with having a beard and a stereotype-defying fixation on giving marital advise in a way that comes across as memorably quirky, and also, surprisingly believable.

How To Train Your Dragon 3’s story meanwhile, is somewhat simple. It pits Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Berk’s young chief and lover of dragons, against Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a fairly typical looking villain with a fixation on killing dragons. Grimmel is undeniably charismatic, but like many cinematic supervillains, is left a tad underdeveloped. In one scene, he monologues to a detained Hiccup about his murderous ways, but ultimately offers a fairly underwhelming origin story. Part of me wonders whether How To Train Your Dragon 3 would have been an even stronger movie, if more scenes explored the relationship between Grimmel and his minions, as such interactions would perhaps have given him a chance to reveal more about his personality. Then again, perhaps Grimmel’s genericness was an intentional choice. One of the film’s key ideas is that Berk is an exceptional community: one whose way of life has subject it to scorn and threats from greater society. In a film where society is the villain, perhaps it makes sense for individual baddies to seem unremarkable.

On that note, I think another positive quality of How to Train Your Dragon 3, is that unlike run-of-the mill preachy children films, it is ambiguous in its messaging. For example in one scene Valka (Cate Blanchett) tells Astrid (America Ferrera) that Hiccup does not believe in himself when he is temporarily separated from his dragon, Toothless. In many children’s films, this moment of messaging would be the film’s defining development. Astrid, despite seemingly agree with Valka, however, responds to her instruction with nuance. Unlike Valka, she recognizes Hiccup’s particular affection for Toothless, and as such, does not tell him to “believe in himself,” but instead takes him on a quest to find his friend.

How to Train Your Dragon 3 is absolutely the kind of sequel that deserved to be made on its narrative merits. Its ending provides a neat arc for the entire How to Train Your Dragon series. While the ending is thus satisfying, parents should know this sequel resembles Toy Story 3 in its bittersweet character and as such may prove more enjoyable for fans of children’s film than for children themselves. I must admit that I felt conflicted about the film’s ending. Yes it was an appropriate resolution to some of the issues raised in the film, and to the series as a whole. That the film ended as it did when another (albeit far-less conventional) resolution to the plot was possible, however, makes me wonder whether writer-director Dean DeBlois subscribed to a vague ideology of pessimism and conformity: a way of thinking that prevents filmmakers from realizing out-of-the-box happy endings, and everyday people from envisioning hope for their futures.

Visually and narratively imaginative, How to Train Your Dragon 3 is an excellent piece of filmmaking. My only doubt is as to whether its bittersweetness is unequivocally a good thing.

Border (2018)

Directed by: Ali Abassi Written by: Abassi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist

Based on a novel by: John Ajvide Lindqvist

border_(2018_film)[1]Border has a misleading title. Given our social contact, one might think it was the story of an immigrant. It’s not: in fact it’s the story of a border guard. It is not however, a story from the opposite political perspective: some sort of Trumpian ode to the nobility of borders. Rather, the film is an example of a piece with bait and switch branding. “The border” serves as a key setting for the film, but it’s really more of a metaphor in a story that does not deal with immigration-status issues at all.

 

Border is based on a novel. I’ve been told by someone who read it that the film holds up, even when one knows its plot in advance. From my perspective, however, this film was best enjoyed as a series of surprises. You think it’s about borders and injustice: it’s not. You think it’s about a border-guard: it’s not.  You think it’s about “ugliness”: well, I can’t say more than that.

 

The initial set up and initial satisfaction of border is as an indie-movie. We don’t see any dramatic scenes in the intiial depiction of the protagonist’s, Tina’s (Eva Melander), border work. She scolds a teenager about sneaking in alcohol, that’s it.  Slowly we’re exposed to her struggles, her home life living with a dog (fighting?) trainer (Jörgen Thorsson), her relationship with her father (Sten Ljunggren)  who lives in a retirement home, etc.

 

The film eventually evolves into a crime story, and then something else more dramatic-still. It nonetheless, never loses its indie feel. In fact, it’s more peculiar elements are well accented by the ordinary world within which they exist.

 

Overall Border has just enough simplicity too it that it can be described positively as a sort of fairy tale. Objectively speaking it is an excellent work: simple enough to vividly remember, aesthetically engaging, and rich with a range of scene dynamics. If I had any qualms with Border its in its approach to expressing its theme. Tina lives on a social
border” where she feels at odds with and/or mistreated by a number of social elements. The result is that the film ends with her distancing herself from two important players in her life. While Tina’s reaction makes sense given the serious wrongs both of these figures have committed, it seems a bit of a shame that the film’s conception of Tina’s existence on the border is one in which she’s condemned to be alienated rather than one from which she can use her perspective to bridge social divides. That said, this is admittedly a philosophical quibble. It does not take away from the fact that Border  is undoubtedly one of the most engaging, thought provoking and well-made releases of 2018.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Directed by: David Yates Written by: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic_Beasts_-_The_Crimes_of_Grindelwald_PosterI recently found myself puzzling through a “moral” dilemma. As an aspiring critic, it troubles me that whether I praise films or not seems to be based on whether I enjoy them and not some higher, more refined criteria. I had this anxiety assuage a little when I watched Fantastic Beast: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I undoubtedly enjoyed the film due to a combination of my identification with protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), its use of familiar faces (ie Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and the way in which magic adds a playful element to action scenes, making them more enjoyable for this non-action-fan. Yet alongside this enjoyment I also felt dissatisfaction. I liked the process of watching the film, yet felt completely underwhelmed as it ended.

While giving away as little as possible, I must say that the ending of The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like an underwhelming return to where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left viewers off. Literally, this isn’t true. Some key facts about the characters change, and we go from knowing nothing to knowing the basics about Grindelwald. But facts changing does not a narrative make. In her first attempt at sequel writing, J.K. Rowling produced Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets  a tale in which protagonist Harry learns a new mythology, is exposed to bigotry, encounters both a new arch-villain and new anti-hero, and also gains a deeper understanding of the previously introduced characters Hagrid and Ginny. By contrast in The Crimes of Grindelwald protagonist Newt Scamander runs around as part of a middle-of-the-road mission, another major character also runs around trying to figure out his identity, yet another character faces a horribly rushed moral dilemma and Grindelwald gives a speech and shoots some flames from his wand.

Rather than simply expressing my disappointment with this film, I think it is worth considering the structural flaws that made it the way it is. One is that it has long been established there were to be five Fantastic Beasts movies, a total that was perhaps pitched with commercial rather than narrative considerations in mind.  The first Fantastic Beasts seems to have been written in such a way that if things didn’t pan out, it would work as a standalone movie: it ends with two of its major characters in being written out. Rather than finding a clever way to respond to this drama (ie finding an emotionally compelling manner to write the characters back in) The Crimes of Grindelwald acts as if the write-outs never happened and rushes the characters back into the story.

Another key structural problem for The Grimes of Grindelwald is that unlike Rowling’s previous Potter-universe series, it is not set in the structured environment of a school. Harry Potter’s story is set up to develop at a nice pace as each book/school year introduces Harry and company as slightly more educated and ready to engage new wonders, and recklessly take on new terrors. As a story of adults The Crimes of Grindelwald gives its characters no time to learn, engage in entertaining but petty conflicts, or develop false theories about their world. Instead they are thrown right into action.

Speaking of developing false theories, that’s a motif that worked very well in the Harry Potter stories (you know questions like who opened the chamber of secrets? Who was Voldemort’s sidekick, etc?) that is attempted in, but falls flat in The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is partially, because, the false theory is not sold to us through the minds of determined, but not-all-knowing children, partially because the truth that counters the false theory isn’t set up in any interesting way, and partially because the theory is inconsequential to the film’s action.While this underwhelming false theory is not solely the product of this film not being set at Hogwart’s story, it certainly didn’t help Rowling in this case that she was writing about action-ready adults as opposed to inquiring children.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not without its merits. While not as prominent as the magical creatures in the series’ first incarnation, the beasts in this one are indeed fantastic. And while the film’s mediocre title isn’t exactly a good fit for its plot (the film is not the series of vignettes on Grindelwald’s exploits the title suggests), Grindelwald nonetheless establishes himself as a subtly solid villain.

As a kid reading Harry Potter works I remember being excited when I first read mention of the dark wizard called Grindelwald, thinking “finally! a villain other than Voldemort for once.” I was subsequently disappointed, however, when I learned that Grindelwald, like Voldemort was a pure-blood-supremacist. So in other words, he was a different villain from Voldemort, but not really. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, finds a nice balance between conflating and differentiating Voldemort and Grindelwald. Voldemort is a blatant pure-blood supremacist: a straight-forward Nazi analogue. He and his followers mince no words in expressing their contempt for muggles and muggle-born wizards. The suit-donning Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), by contrast, bares more resemblance to Richard Spencer than Adolph Hitler, employing “separate-but-equal” rhetoric in place of outright supremacism. While from a political perspective I think it’s important to treat explicit and (barely)-non-explicit racist ideologies as one in the same, from a character development perspective the two ideologies play out differently, and Grindelwald indeed comes across as having a demeanor and brand of villainy unique from Voldemort’s.

I similarly found it enjoyable to see a young Dumbledore. Given that the character’s gentle-genius persona seems tied to his old age in the Harry Potter series, seeing him portrayed as more of a Remus Lupin figure is engaging, even if the difference is subtle. On the other hand, I feel the film failed to capitalize on the power of having Dumbledore as a character. One of the film’s key motifs is Dumbledore’s personal refusal to fight Grindelwald. For much of the film this seems a compelling source of moral tension rooted in love or perhaps a cautious pacifism. Alas, the film ends by offering another explanation for Dumbledore’s refusal to fight which is nowhere near as powerful.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not dull: it’s as magical as it’s predecessors. But it taught me how it’s very possible to both enjoy and be deeply disappointed with a film. Harry Potter (and even the first Fantastic Beasts) stories always left me with favorite scenes, characters and lines. The Crimes of Grindelwald by contrast does little to make jaws drop, and little to sell its characters. As someone who will no doubt feel excited again when its sequel comes out, I can only hope this stories shortcomings are not predictive of what is to come and that Rowling can indeed work her magic again, even in the absence of the Hogwarts infrastructure.