Jul 122016
  July 12, 2016

ghostbusterslogoSo, the first Ghostbusters Reboot reviews are in, and they are…odd. Mostly I’ve seen five stars reviews and zero star ones. This is either the best or worst movie ever. I find both unlikely, and while I’m betting it is closer to the bottom than the top, I suspect even in genre films, it will be sitting on top of many worse films—after all, this is the year of Batman v Superman. It is hard to take any of these extreme reviews seriously and I suspect more than the quality of the film is in play.

The problem with Ghostbusters is that no matter what happens, the results will be bad. That’s because films affect other films. The success or failure of any big budget films is often more important for what it does to other films than for its own quality. One film can crush a career, kill a studio, star a trend, or kill an idea for years to come. Everyone remember Michael Myers? He was on top of the Hollywood pile. Then The Love Guru came along. Notice multiple studios spending tons of time, effort and money to create shared universes? That’s The Avengers effect. After The Road Warrior we had a decade of wild men in the desert flicks. Alien was followed by over a hundred bug in a bottle films. The music in Pirates of the Caribbean has meant since then that no amount of bombast is too much. Harry Potter split its final movie, and we got extra Twilight and extra Hunger Games films. Batman Begins gave us a pair of depressing Superman movies, and the Fantastic 4, along with other depressing superhero flicks. Let’s not even think about the sludge pit The Blair Witch Project left in its wake. And that’s a minor rundown.

Hollywood is as filled with prejudices as any place else, but the main one is money. Hollywood likes it. And they learn lessons very quickly on how not to lose it and what’s the best way to make more, and those lessons are always of the form “do that thing that made money and don’t do that thing that lost money.”

Which brings me back to Ghostbusters, something that could only cause harm. It’s just about out, and those reviews leave it up in the air what will happen. But lets look at the extremes.

If Ghostbusters fails, then MRAs will claim victory. They are already working on hiding good reviews on Redit. There is no time when MRAs claiming victory is a good thing. Culturally, that’s a mess. But sticking with film, that will make money-men less likely than they already are to invest in female-led movies. Any movement in the direction of actual female representation in film that has been happening (and it hasn’t been much), will be slowed even more, and if another flop comes along, we could see years of before anyone starts moving in the right direction again.

On the other hand, what if it is a success? Well, then things are bad as well. Many original ideas never make it to the screen because the money men won’t take a chance when they could instead fund a reboot or a sequel. It’s a painful ride through cinema history to see how many times a director will explain that the reason he made the crap movie he made was because no one would back his real project. And with the huge sums going to big films now, this is getting worse. For quite a few years, reboots and sequels meant money, so that’s what we got. But lately we’ve gotten a string of big budget sequel and reboot flops or underperformers: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Zoolander 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, The Huntsman: Winter’s War. And this is having an effect. The talk in Hollywood is they may have overplayed the sequel and reboot hand—with things like the MCU being a special case. There has been serious movement as money began looking for the next big thing. But it’s only started, and one success—one success that has everyone’s eyes on it, could kill that, and stick us back in the muck. And few films have more eyes on it than Ghostbusters. So, even if it is a great film (and my guess is…no), it will be an artistic disaster if Ghostbusters is a success.

There’s also the issue of a success meaning that Melissa McCarthy’s career will grow, instead of implode—the second being my choice as she is spectacularly unfunny, but that’s a minor issue.

Will the reverse positive effects come into play as well? That is, will its success lead to greater representation for women and will its failure put a nail in sequels and reboots? I doubt it. It may have a minor inpact in those areas, but only very minor. My guess is the only women who will show up more in movies if this is a success are Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. And if it fails, the train is already on the tracks to pull back on sequel/reboots, thanks to Alice and the others just keeping it on track. Ghostbusters could derail it, but probably add little fuel.

Think that a movie can’t have that much effect? Well, we’ll see when we get Kristen Wiig in Scarface and Justin Bieber in Full Metal Jacket. Now if you don’t worry about film as art, but only as entertainment like a rollercoaster, then how much Ghostbusters is going to screw up artistry and representation may not mean much to you. But then I’m not sure why you are paying attention. But for those of us that do care about film as art, this is, unfortunately, a big deal. Ghostbusters is far from the only film that could screw things up—I’ve already spoken a good deal about BvS and the failure of The Neon Demon is in no one’s best interest—but it is the film of the moment.

Jul 062016
3,5 reels

There’s been an “accident” at a secret, isolated lab. They’ve been developing a new form of artificial human, one with emotions. Its name is Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), and this five-year-old that looks eighteen just stabbed one of its keepers (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the eye. The corporate office has sent Lee (Kate Mara), a risk assessment specialist, to make a report and do whatever is necessary. The lead scientist (Michelle Yeoh), who is somehow connected to the vaguely reported “Helsinki tragedy,” looks at the situation coldly, but the rest of the scientific team, particularly Dr. Ziegler (Toby Jones) and Amy (Rose Leslie), have grown very attached to Morgan and are worried that she’ll (as they use the female pronoun) be destroyed. The crew has reason to worry, and even more reason when the AI psychologist (Paul Giamatti) shows up to test Morgan, as he appears less sympathetic than Lee. And with his evaluation, things start going very wrong.

Morgan is the latest in a string of first-step-artificial-intelligence films, following 2015’s Ex Machina. The comparison doesn’t do Morgan any favors as it is very similar to Ex Machina for it’s first half, giving one a sense of over-familiarity with ideas that should feel new and exciting. The second half breaks away from that mold, but that hurt the film at the box office as those who wanted an Ex Machina clone were disappointed. I find this the superior film, because neither is as smart as it thinks it is, and when I have digested the ideas early on, Morgan still has something to offer in a little mystery and a lot of violence.

It certainly offered a lot with the cast. Kate Mara and Anya Taylor-Joy are pitch perfect as the dueling leads. There is the proper amount of strange in Taylor-Joy’s performance to accept her as an AI. Both actresses made me want to know more about their characters. And the rest of the cast is amazing for a semi-low budget film. An ensemble including Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Brian Cox is going to grab my attention. These are some of the best actors working.

Morgan starts off as a mystery: Why did the AI attack the scientist? We have a second mystery in just what Lee is really there to do. While these play out nicely in terms of tone and pace, they just aren’t that mysterious. The only reason you won’t guess the answer to the first is that it is so much less than it should have been. As for the second, it’s so obvious that I find myself twisting my sentences not to give it away here. Without something clever in the plot to augment the “What does it mean to be human?” question that all these recent films have been bounding around without any special insight, Morgan ends up feeling rather ordinary.

However, there is one added layer. I mentioned that there is a string of films you could compare this one to, but the one you should is Blade Runner. It plays out as a prequel to Blade Runner. Morgan is a new type of synthetic human, meant to replace an earlier version. Her difference comes from more developed emotions, and one can see why a company would scale back on that idea after the events at the lab. The psychiatrist’s test is not delivered as you would for a human, but rather like a the Voight-Kampff test, meant to upset the AI and get a response. There’s more, but then we’d be into spoilers.

But am I making too much of the two film’s similarities? I don’t think so. Morgan is produced by Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company (the Ridley Scott who directed Blade Runner). It was directed by Luke Scott, Ridley’s son, who has spent much of his career working on his father’s films. Is it likely they didn’t notice the similarities? Yeah… No. Considering Scott is now keen to connect his films (if you’re not obsessed with Easter eggs, you may have missed that Prometheus put Blade Runner and Alien in the same universe), I believe it is safe to take Morgan as the first step to Roy. And yes, that does make this film a little bit cooler.

Jul 052016
two reels

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), yet another Disney self-doubting teen needing to become who she really is, is chosen by the sea to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who long ago stole the heart of a goddess and cursed the world. Together they must return the heart, but first they have to whine a lot and dwell on how they just aren’t good enough.

Apparently setting the story in ancient Polynesia was all the originally the folks at Disney thought they could afford, so the rest is constructed from previous films, and in every way it is less. They sing generic pop-lite, and I wished for the worst song from Aladdin. Moana argues with the overly controlling father, and I wished for King Triton’s fit in The Little Mermaid. It’s all been done, and done better.

The characters are simple and overly familiar. Moana is particularly annoying. Yes, she’s a teenage girl. Yes, her parents want her to be one way and she wants to be another but she isn’t certain of herself. Yes. Got it. Got it ten films ago. I said everything is less, but that’s not true; there’s a lot more whining. And she’s joined by Maui who is over a thousand freaking years old, but still whines and still must find himself. I learned to hate the two of them. Is there a reason why they have to dwell on their own shortcoming in the middle of a storm, or a battle? Shouldn’t they be busy…sailing or fighting. It gets old.

The computer animation is fine, but nothing special, which is the case with anything that isn’t aggravating. There’s no good to make up for the bad, just a lot of mediocre. I’d give it a One Reel-skip it rating, but the last quarter picks up enough that Moana is OK to catch on TV for free, as long as you don’t pay too much attention.

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Jul 032016
four reels

In mythical Japan, a powerful enchantress escaped from the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) with her one-eyed baby, but at the cost of her warrior husband’s life. Years later, young Kubo (Art Parkinson) takes care of her, earning a few coins by telling stories in the village, accompanied by his magical origami. With his mother getting sicker, he joins in the village’s lantern ceremony of remembrance, trying to speak to his father’s spirit, and there he is seen by the Moon King and his mother’s evil sisters (Rooney Mara) who’ve come for his other eye. Escaping, Kubo sets out on a quest to find his father’s armor, helped by a mystical monkey (Charlize Theron) and an amnesiac, samurai beetle (Mathew McConaughey).

Kubo and the Two Strings is an amalgamation of things you don’t see. It is a smart animated film not just for kids, that doesn’t fall into cheap slapstick but tells a mythic tale of gods and heroes. It is deep in Japanese lore, bringing us Westerners into another culture without falling into the traps of being either respectful or disrespectful. It is stop-motion animation—incredible stop-motion animation that includes the largest puppet every made at over sixteen feet—that is utterly flawless. It is emotional without being saccharine. And it is certainly one of the best films of the year.

Laika studio is the current premier stop-motion animation company, having previously created Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The BoxTrolls (2014). Kubo is a step up and they weren’t being slouches before. Their work is so good that I fear that they won’t get the credit they deserve from many viewers who won’t believe this is stop-motion work. Technically, nothing is close.

But the animation skills on display are only a small part of what makes this film special. The characters are funny without being silly, cleaver enough to avoid the painful moments plaguing so many modern actions films, and not the slipshod clichés common in animated fare. The story is epic and accessible, with a few surprises and always supporting its multiple themes. While it has a good deal to say on the value of life, death, and family, I was taken by its somewhat meta philosophy on storytelling.

Kubo’s only flaw is that, in wanting to make its message (the family and life one) clear to viewers of all ages, it is occasionally too clear. Writers and directors often underestimate children. A bit of subtlety and some words left unspoken would have placed this in the realm of the masterpieces of animation.

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