TPM on the 20th

Like many people, I celebrated The Phantom Menace‘s twentieth anniversary today by watching the film. I remain very much so someone on the outside looking in on fandom, but it has seemed to me that fans of the movie have become more vocal in celebrating it over the past five or ten years, and general opinion has mellowed.

I have a bad habit of providing opinions amplified by several layers of hyperbole in person, and so I know over the years that my expressed opinion on the films has changed rather a lot. I was ten years old when the movie came out, and still a fairly new Star Wars fan, and so I was the perfect viewer in that moment. I loved it. In my adolescence, as a result of the combination of vehement criticism from older fans and my natural teenage aversion to anything silly or earnest, I joined my friends in decrying the film–typically in the context of condemning the course of the prequel trilogy as a whole (Attack of the Clones has always been my least-favorite Star Wars movie, so at the time, it felt like the movies were getting progressively worse). It was in college that I started to come back around to the film, returning to it as to an old friend. My opinion today is tempered. I think it’s a fine but flawed film, and it typically lands in the middle of any personal ranking of the franchise installments.

My personal criticisms of the film, despite my broader changes in attitude toward it, have remained relatively consistent. The podrace scene is too long and bogs down the story. It’s unclear why Palpatine’s Sith identity is treated like a secret withheld from the audience, even while the camera lingers over him ominously in many key scenes and everyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi knows how this all turns out. The scatological humor, while not unique to this episode, isn’t funny. Anakin is too young, with too much of an age gap, to take his childhood crush on Padmé very seriously, and to the extent that she reciprocates it (“my caring for you will remain”), it’s just creepy. Despite the increased diversity of the human cast, many of the new aliens pick up uncomfortable racist tropes in their characterization. And while a common complaint is that the plot is boring in its focus on trade route taxation, I’d counter by saying that it’s actually a rather action-packed adventure that expects its viewers to jump right into the setting and come along for the ride, resulting in gaps in exposition that actually make that trade conflict, and the associated governmental and commercial bodies, rather muddled, simply dressing up a MacGuffin to get things going. (In general, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels as a whole is that they provide a lot more complicated galactic society but do a very poor job of properly framing how these complicated pieces actually function and fit together.)

Despite all that, it’s a really fun movie that takes risks both as a film and as an installment in the Star Wars saga, and it feels incredibly invested with the vision of George Lucas. It quickly introduces new characters that millions of people now relate to and admire deeply–including a character like Qui-Gon Jinn, who is given considerable humanity in this one-off appearance through the performance of Liam Neeson. More broadly, all of the performances are effective, and I would push back at those who claim that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman were stiff or wooden in their roles here. There’s a lot of affection and yet tension between McGregor’s Obi-Wan and his master. Portman is reserved and imposing as Queen Amidala, yet when she dons her handmaiden identity, she often allows herself to be frustrated, angry, affectionate, and engaged.  (Furthermore, the distant identity and elaborate clothing and makeup as Queen Amidala allow Padmé to use a handmaiden as her double–and it is impressively difficult to tell Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley apart when the makeup is on.) Ian McDiarmid is always incredible as Palpatine, and here we first got to see the mirage of a warm and endearing politician, even as McDiarmid portrays a depth of hidden meaning in his distant frowns and tiny smiles. If we look at Ahmed Best’s performance, and the special effects work that went into creating Jar Jar Binks, I think we could all agree that it’s impressive, even if you can’t get behind Jar Jar’s goofy slapstick or the uncomfortable echoes of minstrelsy. Ray Park is scary and compelling as Darth Maul, a character with an iconic visual design, and the fight scenes between Jedi and Sith are some of the best in the franchise–especially that final fight set to “Duel of the Fates,” which in turn has to be a franchise highlight for John Williams’s scores. Even Jake Lloyd does a good enough job as Anakin, despite having to deal with ridiculous lines like “Yipee!” His farewell with Pernilla August as his mother Shmi is a heartfelt, beautiful, earned moment that always touches me.

While I’m sure that some fans will look on The Phantom Menace with a special sort of purity, even as others continue to view it only with contempt, I’ll still enjoy it as an imperfect and unique episode in my favorite film franchise. I think, all in all, it’s stood up to the test of time better than many might have expected twenty years ago.

Review: Detective Pikachu

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is fun, and it feels like a video game adaptation made by people who actually care about the franchise. That’s impressive–it’s at this point trite to note that film adaptations of video games are terrible as a rule. Even walking into the theater, excited by nostalgic appeal and the promise of what would at the very least be a colorful (if cheesy) adventure, I doubted whether I’d be fully on-board with the hyper-realistic depictions of Pokémon; this mood was not helped any by a pre-showing trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, with the titular character living deep in the uncanny valley and dialogue that is somehow both campy and generic.

I was swiftly converted, however, by a beautiful early sequence depicting plausible Pokémon inhabiting the world. Even more important was the film’s tone, established quickly, which leans heavy into whimsy and comedy. This is evident from our introduction to Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, bringing a greater degree of bravery and emotional range to the character type he played in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who is tricked into accompanying his childhood friend (Karan Soni, with a quirky comic persona for his one scene) to catch a Cubone. Tim’s friend thinks that they’d be a good match because they’re both “lonely.” We learn that Pokémon can only be caught if they’re willing to be partnered with a trainer. Tim, reluctant to even make the effort, attempts to befriend the Cubone by telling it that not many people could pull off wearing the skull of a “dead relative.” The tiny Cubone does not react kindly to this, to say the least, leading to a failed catch attempt, a hilariously short retreat, and a colossal wipe-out.

cubone.png
Cubone fleeing before the tables are turned.

Justice Smith spends a good portion of the movie acting awkward or uncomfortable and running from CGI Pokémon threats, and I never got tired of it. After that introductory scene, he learns that his father Harry was apparently killed, and he takes a train ride to Rhyme City to close out his deceased parent’s affairs. Not long after reaching his apartment, he meets Detective Pikachu, who possesses the startling and unique ability to communicate with Tim, and who is amnesiac with only a deerstalker cap imprinted with the detective’s name and address linking him to Harry. Smith’s banter with Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous Pokémon sleuth is consistently fast and witty, and the relationship between Tim and his dad’s old partner Pikachu forms the heart of the movie. That’s a good thing–it’s shocking just how charismatic Reynolds can be as a voice applied to a computer-modeled electric yellow mouse. The effects were wonderful, as well, allowing for the feeling of genuine physical interaction between human and Pokémon, which proved critical for many of the action and character beats.

There’s also a low-level love interest between Tim and newsroom intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who team up to try to uncover the mystery that led to the disappearance of Tim’s dad and a rash of unexplained feral Pokémon attacks. (It just dawned on me in this moment that a good portion of this movie’s plot mirrors that of Zootopia). I’m not familiar with Newton, but I got the impression that she’s a good actor, and her film credits mostly support that. She’s very funny and expressive in this film, and she delivers hilarious lines of dialogue with not just a straight face but an inspired fervor. That said, her character’s not really given that much to do, other than tag along with Tim, exchanging barbs, providing sympathy, and occasionally almost-flirting.

I was impressed by the twists and turns of the detective story, and by the action sequences linking events together. I don’t think it would be too hard to predict at least some of those twists, and a lot of the revelations are dependent upon withholding information from the audience. To be fair, it’s information that the viewpoint characters don’t have, and I at least never felt cheated or bored with the mystery. I’ve never played the game, but reading the Wikipedia page tells me that the story and characters should be familiar to diehard fans, but with plenty of changes to keep them on their toes (and to condense story, tighten the connections between characters, and provide a greater sense of closure). Additionally, while I wasn’t particularly moved by Tim’s complicated family situation, especially given that the movie invested more time in action and comedy than quiet character moments, it provided a clear character arc for Justice Smith to work through (Lucy sadly did not get much of an arc), and the bond that formed between Tim and Detective Pikachu was touching and heartfelt.

It should not be surprising that this film is made for fans of the franchise and nostalgic millennials. But it’s a solid action-comedy movie nonetheless! It actually drops in some rules for the universe to explain how Pokémon and humans interact, making things a little more palatable for a hyper-realistic setting and providing some context for non-fans (there’s one scene early on that’s a bit too exposition-heavy, but it fits the moment). So no one should be unable to track what’s going on, even if they’re not too engaged by the parade of cute-yet-creepy, hyper-real corporate mascots. Despite the narrative friendliness to casual viewers, the film also leans hard into the weirdness of Pokémon, with its bizarre combinations of spirituality and science-fiction. While everything makes sense, I could definitely see those not already invested in the consumer cult of Pokémon finding themselves unwilling or unable to accept the radical events of the third act (thankfully, it’s still grounded in character, and I’m confident that even the most skeptical viewer can still depend on the anchoring bond between Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu).

I also have to note that, while having no impact on the larger film, a small bit of exposition basically establishes some version of the events of the first generation of games (or the anime) as part of the canon of this Detective Pikachu film universe, which is an exciting bit of fan service. Less fan service, but definitely pandering to millennials, is a visual reference to Home Alone when Tim enters Harry’s apartment. I imagine there are other such references to millennial nostalgia that I’m forgetting or just missing.

Detective Pikachu is an entertaining, family-friendly action-mystery movie with a lot of humor. It’s also a great Pokémon movie and an excellent video game adaptation. (It might be the first video game adaptation to actually have a mostly positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for what that’s worth!) For those with kids, and for those who are (or were) fans of the Pokémon franchise, this is a good movie to kick off summer early.

At any rate, between this movie and the Let’s Go games, now’s a great time for lapsed or new Pokémon fans to enter the fold.

Review: Endgame

I didn’t really like Infinity War. I had some not-too-kind things to say about it and the state of the MCU at the time. If my neighbor hadn’t asked if I wanted to join him for Endgame, seeing the sequel to a movie I so maligned wouldn’t have been a priority, and certainly wouldn’t have happened so relatively soon.

But I’ve seen Endgame, only a week late to the conversation, and I found that I mostly liked it. It was a satisfying cap to not just Infinity War but virtually every MCU film that came before it. It provided a swan song for the original Avengers team, and it was a promise for new generations of heroes and new iterations of heroic legacies. And it tried its best to patch up some of my biggest complaints with Infinity War. The single biggest improvement: this film finally allows for genuine dramatic stakes with permanent repercussions. We see a lot of Infinity War‘s bullshit cliffhanger ending undone, though not so cleanly as I had thought, and not only do the characters deal with a lot of trauma and change, but not all of them make it through–and there shouldn’t be any redoes this time. (It’s refreshing to see that the MCU is finally doing what the comics won’t, acknowledging the passage of time and actually allowing an ending for at least some characters.)

Best of all, Endgame offered the best performances to date for the core Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic and really leans into the grief, trauma, and heroism of his role–though his characteristic snark seldom departs him. Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner both pull everything they can out of the platonic bond of soulmates that their characters share; frankly, I’ve never cared much for Renner or his character, and yet Hawkeye’s arc in this film was one of my favorite things about it. Mark Ruffalo expresses a smug confidence that was so uncharacteristic and reflected how much Bruce Banner had changed between films. Chris Evans is sterling as ever as the always optimistic, pure-hearted Captain America. And Chris Hemsworth brings a lot of quirky neuroticism to the role of Thor, to mixed results, but my qualms are more with the script than the acting.

The movie was a whirlwind of an experience, and it was surreal to realize that three hours had passed as the credits rolled. I was engaged from start to finish. I can’t say that this would necessarily be a good movie on its own, but as heavily as it relied on the decade-plus of Marvel movies, and as many characters and events as it referenced, I never felt lost or confused. The payoff found in this movie was definitely earned. And while I was incredibly annoyed by the end of Infinity War, I loved how heavily the film leaned into allowing the characters to experience and process grief (well, almost all the characters–as I mentioned, Thor got a bad deal in his portrayal).

I do have some complaints, but to get into them, I have to discuss plot beats. I imagine anyone reading this has probably already seen the movie…still, SPOILERS FOLLOW.

 


 

First and foremost, I really didn’t like that the Soul Stone once again claims a female sacrifice. I actually thought that the tender moment between Hawkeye and Black Widow was lovely, and the fight to see who could self-sacrifice first was a fascinating way to work out the deep love and protectionism both characters share for each other. But first Gamora, and now Natasha. And both of these deaths are quite permanent.

Relatedly, while I liked that Gamora came back in some form, it felt like a cheap workaround of the permanence of death associated with a Soul Stone sacrifice. I’m not too bothered by it, though–a past version of Gamora on the loose in the present galaxy, with her sister and her lover holding feelings for her that she does not share in return, offers some interesting narrative possibilities down the line.

I also really didn’t like the depiction of Thor. I think this Tor essay by Sylas Barrett sums it up better than I ever could, but I didn’t like that his grief and trauma, and his associated weight gain, were used as recurrent gags. The other heroes all seemed to be annoyed by his mental illness, as though they felt that he should just man up and tough it out, as though everyone processes things the same way–as though Thor hadn’t lost all his family individually and then failed in stopping Thanos in such a way that he could feel directly responsible for it all. If nothing else, I’m frustrated that Marvel can’t seem to figure out what to do with Thor, and all the great character development and tonal shifts of Ragnarok continue to be undermined by what has followed. Still, I’m excited to see Thor join on with the Guardians of the Galaxy; his interactions with them in Infinity War were a highlight, and the quirky and colorful space opera of Ragnarok shares more than a little in common with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

To get really petty, I thought it sort of pathetic when, in the final battle, Marvel shows a shot of the female superheroes all rallying to help Captain Marvel get across the battlefield, only for their plan to fail in a couple minutes. It felt like Marvel desperately crying out, “Oh we have female characters, lots of them, we care about women for real!” And yet over Infinity War and Endgame, they killed present Gamora, past Nebula, and Black Widow, and they didn’t really give any of the female characters much to do. (Captain Marvel was great when she was present. Scarlet Witch had an excellent five minutes against Thanos. I’ve already mentioned how Black Widow shined in her scenes with Hawkeye. Nebula had a great heroic arc, even if she didn’t get as much focus as many of the other survivors. But for the most part, this was a movie focused on men.)

Finally, I found some of the patches for Infinity War to be rather weak. I know that Infinity War mentions that half of Asgard was killed, implying that half survived, and I’m glad to see that most of the characters I loved in Ragnarok made it through, but how exactly did that work? Weren’t all of the Asgardian refugees on board the ship attacked by Thanos? How come we saw no indication that they escaped when the ship exploded? Where did they go? If there were escape pods or something, how come Thor didn’t look for them? How come the Guardians didn’t detect them? And how did the refugees get to Earth? So it’s nice that many of them made it after all, but there’s no effort to explain exactly how that happened. That’s nothing compared to my frustration with Doctor Strange’s decision to turn over the Time Stone. Okay, so it leads to the only path that he sees where they win, and it allows for the Ancient One to trust the Hulk when he travels in time to collect it. But how, exactly, could that be the only way to victory? If Strange had let Tony die, and kept the Time Stone tucked away in whatever pocket dimension he held it, how exactly would Thanos have acquired it? Okay, so Tony gets five years of marriage and a daughter. But he still ends up dead in the apparently only win condition, and a lot of people suffered for those five years, and a lot of people will find themselves displaced after winking back into existence after five years. Just in general, the time travel mechanics and alternate realities rely on the audience trusting the filmmakers and putting doubt out of mind, not scrutinizing anything too hard, and I wasn’t willing or able to do that.

On the flip side, there were a lot of things I loved. I loved the arcs for Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. I loved Rocket’s reunion with Groot on the battlefield, as he dives on top of his newly recovered friend to shield his body from the falling missiles. That scene, along with Tony’s death and funeral scenes, brought tears to my eyes. I loved the arrival of all the heroes, old and new, on the battlefield. I loved the passing of the mantle from Steve to Sam, I loved Pepper in her own Iron Man suit, and I loved Black Widow’s time as the head of an Avengers team consisting of (if I recall correctly) War Machine, Okoye, Rocket, Nebula, and Captain Marvel. And I loved that most of the characters got at least a couple good moments in the film, even outside of the core cast of the original Avengers plus Rocket and Nebula plus Ant-Man.

This film was fun to watch and offered a final, and mostly satisfying, conclusion for many of the characters who have been around for the longest. It also offers the potential for a lot of exciting new stories to tell. I hope that we now see Marvel movies take more risks and break away from the Marvel formula (though of course, we already have examples like Guardians of the GalaxyAnt-ManBlack Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and even Captain Marvel that offered something different). Time will tell if Marvel follows through on that potential. For now, we’ve reached an Endgame.

Captain Marvel continues Marvel’s excellent reinvigoration of space opera

As usual, I’m behind the conversation; over Avengers: Endgame‘s opening weekend, I went to see Captain Marvel. I had no particular interest in seeing it, but it was the end point of a leisurely walk along the White River and through downtown on a personal day. I don’t get particularly excited about Marvel movies anymore, and I have minimal familiarity with the Captain Marvel character. The trailers didn’t do anything for me, either. But this film was a surprising joy for me, and I’m glad I saw it.

There are many things to like about Captain Marvel. I like its refreshingly pure-hearted and good-willed protagonist as portrayed by Brie Larson. I like the introduction story here, less an origin (though it contains that, in flashbacks) and more a recognition of one’s true capability and the overturning of years of built-in cultural indoctrination. I liked the appearance of young(ish) agents Coulson and Fury. I liked the sci-fi story, and I liked the big twist, and I liked how it wasn’t just a big twist but actually helped with Carol Danvers’s character growth and full acceptance of her new, heroic, independent identity. I even liked how the potential display of how Fury lost his eye becomes a running gag and ultimately a solidly landed brick joke.

I especially liked that Captain Marvel leaned into being its own thing. Set in the nineties, with a hero character unfamiliar to the existing superhero community of Infinity War and with events that couldn’t have an obvious impact on the state of the world (because why wouldn’t we know about it already?), Captain Marvel seemed like it would be an exceedingly unnecessary and pointless film in a franchise already full of such unnecessary productions. But while Captain Marvel does actually have some nice connective tissue to the Avengers films and draws a direct path to Endgame, it largely succeeds because it focuses on big a good movie instead of another tangle in the web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the connections were there, but you could go into this fresh and enjoy a great superhero sci-fi story.

The sci-fi elements were especially fun, and I hope that this serves as a sign that Marvel will continue to incorporate more and more wild space opera into its films. We saw the faintest glimmer of what was to come in the original Thor, but Captain Marvel feels like a sibling of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok in being so wildly, ridiculously over-the-top in its depiction of galaxy-spanning empires and alien cultures. It also feels like a movie that has spiritual roots in the eighties or nineties, with the premise of an Earth-born human hero clandestinely becoming entangled in an intergalactic conflict echoing Flash Gordon or The Last Starfighter.

I hope that Marvel continues to release wild, wacky, cosmic epics. I’d love to see a sequel to Captain Marvel that details her adventures taking down the Kree empire. But I also hope that we can see some other, original, high-quality space opera films come out. It’s a rare treat, and the plots are often a little half-baked, but I love the colossal scale and alien settings, and when these things have the budget for a decent cinematic experience, it’s truly wonderful.

Review: Ahsoka

Ahsoka (Star Wars)Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ahsoka is a satisfying bridge tale that connects the dots in Ahsoka’s life between where we left her at the end of the Clone Wars and where we found her in Rebels. It’s also a pretty decent character study of Ahsoka, and I felt like the spirit of the character was really captured. For that matter, what time we have with Bail Organa is a real treat, as Johnston has portrayed him as charming, calculating, maybe a little exhausted, and compassionate yet wary. He felt pitch-perfect to me.

The story itself is a fine adventure that introduces us to elements from Rebels like the Inquisitors and the nascent Rebel Alliance. We also get a fair amount of completely new characters, planets, and ideas that continue to make that galaxy far, far away feel like a very real and very big place. I rather liked most of the new characters as well, from the farmers of Raada to the Fardis smuggling family. By the novel’s conclusion, I shipped Ahsoka and her new farmer friend Kaeden, for what that’s worth.

By the way, on finishing, I did go back and re-read Johnston and Ashley Eckstein’s “By Whatever Sun” in From A Certain Point Of View, and I found that I enjoyed the story much more this time around. It’s a rather satisfying epilogue to the story of Kaeden and Miara.

I obviously didn’t race through this book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Ahsoka or the Filoni animated shows.

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Christopher Robin

I didn’t really intend to watch Christopher Robin. I don’t have kids, and I don’t have much patience for Disney’s endless parade of live-action remakes of animated films (making a worse product, but selling it as “more mature,” and relying on nostalgic imagery in trailers, is some of the most disgustingly crass marketing to Millenials I’ve seen–and I played the Let’s Go, Pikachu! game for dozens of hours, so I know Millenial pandering when I see it).

Netflix kept promoting it, though, and I decided to just put it on in the background while my wife would be out, and almost immediately I became deeply enthralled by and enraptured with it.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s so easy to look past the imperfections when there is so much whimsy and charm and heart. And it’s important to note that it’s not a remake but a reinterpetation and continuation of Winnie the Pooh. In that regard, the film is rather like Hook, a film with its own original story that served as a sequel to Peter Pan. In fact, the films have similar narratives and themes, as key figures of classic children’s literature, who have since become world-weary, unhappy, middle-aged men, rediscover childhood wonder and fun just in time to reaffirm what is truly valuable in life and to reconnect with family. I liked Hook as a child, and I find that I liked Christopher Robin even more as an adult. But I know that Hook didn’t have the most positive reception, and I suspect that Christopher Robin is also a movie where appreciation will hinge especially on subjective, emotional responses, and receptivity could vary widely.

As a child, I loved the Milne stories and the animated Pooh as voiced by Jim Cummings. So while I never thought I’d watch a movie like this as an adult, while I saw it as a suspect addition to the live-action remake trend, it did not take much for me to fall overwhelmingly in love. And with an excellent cast spearheaded by Ewan McGregor and the voice talents of Cummings, the emotional soul of the movie is palpable. Let’s just say, I cried many times and for many reasons while watching this movie.

Christopher Robin was a movie tailored to my demographic, and it resonated with me, and it had a universal message with enough emotional weight to say something about my own life and about growing up and adulthood. I might add this to the rotation of films I return to, especially when I’m going through a hard time. Discovering this film this week meant a lot to me.

It’s fine by me if you can’t buy into it, if you see the film itself as a cheap appeal to Millenials and their pocketbooks. But anyone with a little of their child-self left, or anyone with children of their own, should hopefully find room to be touched by this charming little movie about a charming little bear and his best friend.