Once upon a time in poorly drawn Antarctica…
Once again I dust off the old blog, which has no doubt grown lonely in binary solitude. This time, however, I do so not with the intention of reviewing some current movie taking the box office by meager September-revenue storm, but to also dust off an old favorite of mine. Perhaps not quite so old as to be called a classic (though I suspect that will be the case as the years creep forward), today’s movie to remember is an animated genre mash-up from the year 2011: a comedy western called Rango. Directed by Gore Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean Fame) and starring Johnny Depp as the eponymous anthropomorphic Chameleon on an existential quest for his own personal identity, the film twists the talking animal cartoon formula with the conventions of the spaghetti western and Joseph Campbellian “heroes journey.” The result is an enormously clever homage and dissection of the long-celebrated genre that bursts at the stitches in it’s boots with energy, imagination, humor and thrills. Depp turns in one of his most electrified and likable performances since the first “Pirates” (bolstered by the great writing behind the character). He is joined by a colorful cast of supporting characters (Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin oFer some of the standouts), a Greek chorus of guitar-shredding Mariachi Owls and chilling antagonists in the form of Ned Beatty and Bill Nighy, all brought to life by gorgeous animation that puts the cinematography of several live action movies to shame. Finally, the movie is downright hilarious, with jokes both detailed, clever and crass ranging from one-liners, well placed inflections and sight gags sprinkled throughout. As a huge fan of Gore Verbinski’s sensibilities as a film maker, it brings me no small amount of joy to see a film like this shine through the last few years of disappointments with him at the helm. I certainly hope he finds another passion project soon, before Rango becomes known as the last good movie he ever made. That said, if ever there were a swan song for the success of a talented film maker, this is the one.
I know, I’m a week late. I don’t get paid to write these, not yet at least, so I can’t always get to the movies on opening night. Luckily, I’m not here to beat a dead horse. I’m not going to trash the movie (because lord knows I was prepared to going in) nor am I going to hail it as the superhero film as the year, because it isn’t. It’s not even close. The days of a middle ground in regards to superhero films seem to be a thing of the past. This is most likely because of the massive influx of them, as well as the lopsided-ness of the genre (Marvel cornering the market of shared cinematic universes for years before DC even started its attempt). Whatever the reason may be, a superhero film can’t just be “good” anymore, or decent, or alright. It has to reinvent the wheel, or it is deemed a colossal failure. A movie is either masterpiece or piece of hot garbage, and it all depends on who you ask. DC movies, in particular, especially this year, seem to be inspiring one of those two reactions. There’s an innate, aggressive defensiveness among fans, and in response non fans have taken on a more aggressive offense in their criticisms of the films.
In the end I suppose it all comes down to what you value, fan service, strong writing, visual flair, or subtext. All four of these factors add up to a great film, superhero or otherwise. For Deadpool, it had fair balance of all of them, though maybe light on subtext. Batman V Superman had visual flair, subtext and fan service to spare, but a complete lack of strong writing left it as a series of montages loosely strung together. Captain America Civil War probably had the best balance of all of them. Suicide squad was…certainly a way to kill an afternoon. If I were to review it in a sentence, that sentence would be: “Not great, or even very good, but it has some bright spots, so it’s worth a watch.” It had the possibilities for subtext, about the nature of good and evil, the mindset of a criminal, ect. This largely goes unexplored in lieu of an aesthetic of sheer carnage and mania to match the unstable nature of some of its characters. This results is a god awful 15-20 minute stretch at the very beginning of the film that feels more like a playlist on YouTube than the opening of a film. It’s like having constant noise thrown at you in a bad children’s film, a cadophany of light, color and sound to keep you from getting bored in case Batman v Superman didn’t do the trick. Luckily this manic, hot topic Andy Warhol routine is dropped when the film starts zeroing in on an actual plot, but the disjointedness never leaves.
There are obvious gaps in characterization throughout, with character developments feeling very unearned by the end of the film. This also leads to a generic villain that’s like an amalgamation of Malekith from Thor: The Dark World and Viper from The Wolverine. Rather than emphasize the “true villain” of the film (Viola Davis as Amanda Waller), the film instead opts for the avengers formula of “big bad has a shiny thing that’s blowing up the sky while an army of minion fodder get thrown at the squad to deal with.” And therein lies the main problem with this movie: focus is put on the wrong people at the wrong times. Why is Enchantress (the default antagonist in a film full of villains) singled out as evil, when she, along with every member “task force X” are black ops slaves to shady, Machiavellian government figure who is framed with multiple allusions to the devil throughout the film? Every other criminal on the team is given some element of tragedy, why not her? There is a good movie here, a great movie, even. But something went very, very wrong in the production. Removing some excess characters like Karana or Killer Croc, fleshing others out more, shifting the role of antagonist, and an editor who actually knows how to do his or her job would have accomplished just that.
While so far I’ve done nothing but pick the movie apart, I must stress that I do so because there are parts of this movie that I really, really liked. The cast all around if fantastic. The characters are enjoyable to watch and easy to get invested in, which is more than I can day for DC’s other outing this year. There are even some pretty inventive visual designs and effects work peppered throughout other highly questionable directorial choices. Will Smith is great as Deadshot, Margot Robbie is infectious as Harley Quinn, and Viola Davis is sublimely intense as Amanda Waller. This is also the first movie where I actually really enjoyed Jai Courtney in a role. I’m hoping for a sequel, preferably with a new crew behind the camera, because there is the making of something special here, and it is the shot in the arm that the DC cinematic universe desperately needs. To quote Deadshot, someone just needs to get it there.
The truest mark of a great children’s movie, if one exists, is to once more feel like a child while watching, and to do so without ever feeling insulted or talked down to. To be immersed, educated, and transformed while also entertained, regardless of whether you’re an adult or child. With that in mind, it hasn’t been a bad year for animated films. Finding Dory managed to not only justify it’s questionable existence as a sequel to a decade old film (that worked just fine one its own), but also delicately and sympathetically shed light on the hardships of living with a mental disability (and living with some who’s mentally disabled). Zootopia provided a fresh, funny blend of buddy cop thriller tropes and punchy real world commentary on prejudice and stereotypes. Even Kung Fu Panda 3 provided some of the most dynamic and dazzling action scenes of any blockbuster this year (in the January dumping ground no less). But this past weekend, the animated children’s film to beat didn’t barrel it’s way into theater to lay waste to box office records. Instead, it snuck in through the back door of online streaming.
Distributed as a Netflix original film after being dropped by Paramount, The Little Prince is a U.S/ French/ Canadian-produced adaptation of the famed novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A stunning hybrid of computer-generated animation and stop-motion, the film features a tour de force of visual ingenuity, a stellar voice cast and the earnest, thoughtful storytelling that made the original novella such a revered classic. The film utilizes stop motion to bring the original novella to life while using CG for an original tale that bookends the known story. In this new story, a young girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), pushed hard to succeed by her organized, overachieving mother (Rachel McAdams), learns the importance of holding on to the values of a child when she hears the extraordinary tale of the little prince and his journey across space to Earth. The tale is told to the young girl by her senile ex-pilot neighbor (the human protagonist of the novella, voiced by Jeff Bridges). As with any adaptation of the classic story, the movie covers a myriad of philosophical themes, ranging from the facing inevitability of death, faith vs the known, conformity vs nonconformity, loss and the reclaiming of innocence and finding meaning in a busy, apathetic world through singular, unique bonds between people. Not once does the film pander to its audience with base humor or superfluous slapstick. It know exactly when to be funny and when to take itself and its audience seriously, delivering every philosophical point with poise and nuance.
While diehard fans of the source material may be put out by the inclusion of new content (and at such an extensive level), American director Mark Osbourne grounds new additions with humanistic charm, never once “Americanizing” this emphatically French story. The new content is integrated into that of the classic seamlessly, never abandoning or distorting the themes of the novella, but rather illustrating them to the further extent that a feature film length allows. When all is said and done, I can’t imagine a more perfect children’s film to define the terms of all others to come out this year. The Little Prince is an emotional marvel of animated film making that deserves to be seen, and I cannot fathom why it was dropped by Paramount. Whatever the reason may be, it was a colossal mistake on their part.
In conjunction with my top 15 movies of 2015 list, I decided to tackle another genre that I hold dear, superheroes. More specifically, superheroes on TV. So without futher ado, here is my apologetically belated…
Top 10 comic book/ superhero tv shows to debut in 2015
10. Arrow: Season Four
I won’t lie, this one is kind of a placeholder. I couldn’t think of a valid ten, and the only other superhero show I watched was Gotham, and I refuse to put that on any “best list.” Arrow season four is an…adequate…season so far. The show has yet to completely recover from the abysmal soap opera that was Season three, but it is a step in the right direction. The singular entity in the show that accomplishes this in the new villain: Damien Dahrk. Ridiculous, faux-edgy name aside, Damien Dahrk, as played by Neil McDonough, is a fun, interesting antagonist, which is already a vast improvement over the third season’s terminally boring interpretation of the batman villain R’as Al Ghul. He squares off against the green arrow and his private army of vigilantes with charm, an air of mystery and brings a new exciting threat to show: Dark Magic. He, and the occasional ham flavored cameo by John Barrowman as Malcolm Merlyn, keep the show watchable.
9. Ultraman X
I’m a newcomer to the Ultraman franchise, but having been raised on Godzilla and Gamera movie and having recently decided to spring for the premium package on Crunchyroll, I decided to give it a whirl and jumped into the latest iteration of the multi decade-spanning Tokusatsu series. While the show is hampered by overt Power Rangers tropes like the revolving door of armors and bulky, plastic gadgets that are obviously toys they’re trying to sell to kids, the show has a fun, energetic cast of characters and bright, colorful visuals to accompany the battles between the Alien Giant Ultraman X and his rogues gallery of giant monsters. What truly sold me on the show was a surprisingly fantastic two part finale that amped the stakes and drama of what had mostly been a children’s show to 11. I also enjoyed the inversion of the DaiKaiju Eiga(giant monster movie) tropes. While Ultraman X does wrestle monsters in rubber suits in a flashy display of colorful SFX, the show also introduces the idea of that they aren’t just monsters for Ultraman to blow, but simply enormous, scared animals too big for the environment they’ve been thrust upon by outside forces. So a good portion of the show follows protagonist Daichi going out of his way to study and understand the Kaiju, rather than simply hunt them, which added a refreshing complexity to the conflict of the show.
8. Supergirl: season One
Supergirl introduces the world to the cousin of Superman as she fights through alien prison breaks and American gender politics to establish herself as a competent, powerful superhero independent of her cousin. For the most part, the show succeeds. Melissa Benoist is a revelation as Kara Zor-El/ Danvers aka Supergirl. She’s infectiously likable and easy to root for while also bringing the weight one would expect from a character who’s lost her entire planet (a planet she actually remembers, unlike superman). The show also of focuses the microscope on issues of gender equality in the media and workplace in a way that’s unabashed without being overbearing and obnoxiously soap box-y (for the most part). The show does suffer the drawbacks most first seasons do, such as an ensemble of side character that could use a little fat-trimming and some rather underwhelming villains for Supergirl to fight. But I’m hopeful that the show will only continue to get better and better as it goes on.
7. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Season Three
While still suffering from a bloated cast of character (only 2 or 3 of whom I actually care about), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D starts off its third season with four strong storylines: the ongoing war with the terrorist organization Hydra (now run by ex ally/ revealed Hydra agent Grant Ward), the disappearance and search for S.H.I.E.L.D scientist Gemma Simmons (who’s found herself on a seemingly dead alien planet), an outbreak of an alien mutagen revealing superpowers in people who come to be known as the “Inhumans” (bringing in an interesting mystery surrounding an Inhuman Serial Killer) and the sociopolitical upheaval this outbreak causes prompting government over-regulation of the situation. While this may seem like a lot to be going on for the first half of one season, the show does a good job of juggling these storylines, and even, quite masterfully, ties them all into one singular plot thread towards the middle of the season. Since it’s a season that’s still in progress I’ll refrain from spoiling too much, but it quite a thrilling watch so far.
6. The Flash: Season 2
Last year it seemed whatever enthusiasm and passion for good work the creators of Arrow had in them went into the first season of the Flash. It was fun, full of heart and had a fantastic main antagonist in the form of Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash. In season 2 the train keeps on rolling. Whereas last season dealt with time travel, now the Flash and company face an onslaught of doppelgängers and meta humans from across the multiverse, and leading them is a terrifying new villain, Zoom. Silly name aside, the design and voice work by Tony Todd make Zoom an absolute monster, bringing a sense of dread to the show that not even Reverse Flash had brought. While there’s still some of that token CW melodrama that’s been suffocating Arrow for two seasons, The Flash continues to muscle through it with fun characters, great villains, and high flying sci fi adventure.
5. Doctor Who: Series Nine
I hesitated to include this as its first and foremost a science fiction show, but I’m also of the mind that all the best superhero shows and movies transcend that singular mold and embrace other genres, and what is the Doctor if not a superhero? He’s a powerful alien who flies through space and time in his TARDIS saving people and fighting off monsters in the best way he knows how: being clever, reckless and unafraid of whatever harm may come to him. As always the most interesting Doctor Who stories are ones where the threat isn’t quite as cut and dry as “the thing that looks like a monster is bad while the humans are good, therefore humans should win.” It’s never that simple in Doctor Who, and this season is no different, with one notable two parter concerning an invasion of alien Shapeshifters and the Doctor’s desperate pleas for both sides to embrace forgiveness and avoid the horrors of war. Another great struggle for any hero is with the notion of doubt of one’s righteousness. This season, and seasons before, heavily feature the Doctor denying the idea that he is actually a hero, recoiling at the horror of actions he’s taken to “save the day” at whatever cost. This moral complexity, coupled with the epic space opera flair and Peter Capauldi’s fantastic performance as the 12th regeneration of the Doctor made this season a blast to watch and I can’t wait to see where Doctor travels next.
4. Agent Carter: Season One
The Marvel juggernaut continues to stake it’s claim on audiences, not only in film, but now on television. One such show enriches the franchises ever expanding mythology with the furthered exploits of S.H.I.E.L.D founder, WWII spy and ally to Captain America: Agent Peggy Carter. Set in post-WWII New York, the show follows Agent Carter as she investigates the theft of high tech Howard Stark-designed weapons while traversing the minefield of antiquated 20th century gender politics and inequality. Haley Atwell excels in the role of Peggy Carter, kicking ass while simultaneously maintaining the characters femininity with charisma to spare. A good supporting cast of allies, enemies and fun, pulpy period setting make Agent Carter a rollicking fun sit, but not at the cost of substance and emotional weight.
3. Jessica Jones: Season One
Continuing the 2015 legacy of great female-led superhero tv shows, the buck stops at the Netflix/ Marvel collaboration Jessica Jones. A moody Noir throwback/ psychological thriller with a fantastic lead performance by Kristen Ritter as a hard-boiled, super-strong P.I riddled with personal demons, the most horrifying of which is made manifest by a stellar David Tennent as mind-controlling serial rapist/murderer Kilgrave (known in the comics as the Purple Man). The show at it’s best is a nail-biting silence-of-the-lambs style game of cat and mouse Between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave, as well as a beautifully layered dissection of personal trauma, the scars it leaves, and the different ways in which different people cope with it. What really launches the show is it’s tone and it’s leads (namely Jessica and Kilgrave, possibly Marvel’s greatest villain adapted to screen, or he would be if not for the next show to be listed). Like most Netflix Original programming it’s structured for binge-watching, and the show does suffer from a surplus of side characters and spinning it’s tires, so to speak, towards the end, but the show is defintiely one Marvel’s best screen outings and an instant classic.
2. Daredevil: Season One
And now we come to Marvel’s best outing of 2015, be it in either film or television, the first season of their first collaboration with Netflix, Daredevil. A gritty, tense and complex morality tale of heroics and gentrification, blind vigilante-by-night Matt Murdock/Daredevil battles the Kingpin of crime Wilson Fisk for the soul of his home neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen. Charlie Cox is suitably intense, charismatic and vulnerable as Lawyer/ Superhero Daredevil, while Vincent D’Onofrio turns in a possibly career defining performance as the raw, unstable, yet surprisingly tender force of nature that is Wilson Fisk. The fight choreography is a wonder to behold, and the supporting cast all fit into an intricate web of intrigue befitting a crime epic such as this.
1. One Punch Man
At last we come to my number one pick for best superhero show of 2015. This witty, dazzlingly drawn anime blends the satirical with the genuine in an adaption of the hit web comic that follows Saitama, the unbeatable “superhero for fun” in search of a fight worthy of his seemingly limitless power. Gradually easing it’s main character into a larger world of superheroes, One Punch Man explores a wildly creative rogues gallery of monsters, ninjas, gangs and Alien warlords. Fun, magnetic characters, great action and thoughtful explorations of what makes for true heroics (super or othewise) make One Punch Man the superhero show (or show in general) to watch from the past year.
And that’s my list, hope you enjoyed my thoughts on these shows. If you haven’t seen any of them, by all means, don’t just take my word for it, seek them out and watch them. Every show on this list is worth a watch at least.