She’s So Animated! (Wonder Woman (2009) review)

Super heroes have been dominated by male leads in film since almost the beginning of their celluloid representation. Which is odd, given that there are more than enough female super heroes to go around, with compelling story arcs of their own to be had.

This is one of those times.

 

Wonder Woman (2009)

Cast: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson, Marg Helgenberger, Oliver Platt, Virginia Madsen, David McCallum
Director: Lauren Montgomery
re-released on blu-ray May 16, 2017
******** 8/10

IMDB: 7.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%, Audience Score 78%
The Guardian: n/a

Lauren Montgomery is an American animated film director and artist. Aside from directing the Wonder Woman film I’m about to revisit, she also had a hand in Green Lantern: First Flight, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Justice League: Doom, and co-directed Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and Batman:Year One. A fairly young director still, Montgomery has been drawing from a young age and is heavily influenced by Disney, Bruce Timm of Batman: The Animated series fame, and anime.

Wonder Woman is her first directorial outing. And to be frank, it’s quite entertaining. But I’ll let the plot drive some of this demonstration for me first.

The story opens by explaining that the eternally youthful Amazons and their queen Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen) were granted the island of Themyscira after defeating Ares (Alfred Molina) and his monster army in battle. Hippolyta even beheaded her and Ares’ son Thrax in battle, who was begot from rape.

Hippolyta would have killed Ares too in battle, but  his father Zeus (David McCallum) stopped her from the action. Instead, Hera (Marg Helgenberger) bound his powers with bracelets that could only be opened by another god and the Amazons held Ares in prison cell indefinitely.

Later, Hippolyta was granted a daughter with Zeus’ blessing, and Princess Diana (Keri Russell) was born from sand and blood.

Over a millennium later, an American fighter pilot, USAF Colonel Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion), crash-lands on the island. Steve and Diana meet and fight, and she defeats him, taking him to the Amazons. Interrogated with the golden lasso, they learn he is not an enemy. An emissary will be tasked to take him home. Diana volunteers, but her mother argues against that notion, to which Diana defies the order and participates in the emissary contests with a helmet to hide her identity.

Simultaneously, the Amazon Persephone, seduced by Ares, kills Artemis sister, Alexa, and releases him. Now also tasked with capturing Ares, Diana brings Trevor to New York, and he volunteers to help Diana.

In the world of man, Diana starts an investigation that will eventually lead her to Area, by way of the underworld. Diana attempts to stop Ares, but harpies knock her out and Trevor saves her instead of stopping Ares. Elsewhere Ares persuades his uncle Hades (Oliver Platt) (who has made Thrax his slave) to remove the braclets, to which Hades agrees.

When Diana wakes up, she is furious that Trevor saved her instead of stopping Ares, but Trevor makes good points about the Amazons isolation and ignorance, winning her over.

Ares and the Amazons battle in Washington, D.C. and Ares raises the undead to his side, but Artemis is given a chant from her dead sister Alexa to redeem the dead and remove Ares’ command. Ares promptly destroys the undead while Hippolyta faces Persephone in combat and kills her. Not before Persephone points out that by hiding away, the Amazons never got to know men and be whole women.

Ares and Diana finally square off and Diana narrowly outmaneuvers and beheads him just as Hippolyta beheaded Thrax. Diana and Trevor share a kiss and we see in the Underworld that Hades has enslaved Ares just as he did with Thrax.

Hippolyta  determines that Diana should be the official Amazon misses emissary and sends her back to New York. Trevor and Diana become a couple and Diana is now by the world as Wonder Woman.

The animated Wonder Woman follows many of the same notes as its 2017 live action version, but interestingly enough, it has different examples of humour and even more in the way of action sequences. Wonder Woman rejects the notion of a secondary role for women in action/ adventure stories, she is her own heroine.

Pros: It’s fast paced, well animated and the voice acting is excellent in almost every instance, though you never feel like are expected to know tons of her back story. Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion and Alfred Molina in particular are a treat to watch in action.

Cons: Aside from the complex issues of gender, there are dialogue moments which are difficult to swallow (ie. “You’re starting to sound like a woman”), and it is a bit jarring to hear Rosario Dawson’s voice and see a white woman in her stead.

Runtime: 1 hour 14 minutes

Points of Interest: The movie originally received an R rating from the MPAA, though most of edits came from minor changes to the battle scenes. This is the second time Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion have worked together, after Waitress.

While the story has clearly stuck to the visual aesthetics of comic book history, we are never treated to a sexualized or naive Diana Prince – she always carries herself as a patron of truth, justice and freedom. In fact, there is little in the way of narrative calling her out based on gender. The story is strong, and ripped out of the Wonder Woman’s past, so expect to feel that higher sense of morality by film’s end. It’ll be a wonder if you don’t.

theories Summarized

I’ve now seen both this film and the live-action version, and while I love the weirdness of comic books, the 2017 film is something to behold. Yet, that doesn’t make this story irrelevant. It touches more on the greek myths of which Wonder Woman is based, and in some cases, has even better mature humour. If you’ve enjoyed any of the DC Universe Animated Original Moves, you should give this one some time.

Tim!

Too Old To Be A Kid, Too Young To Be A Man (A Monster Calls review)

Why is the stories from our youth always seem to have the most impact on us as adults? They leave a legacy all their own and one which compounds over and over again, creating ripples in the lives of those around us.

 

A Monster Calls (2016)

Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, James Melville
Director: J.A. Bayona
released on blu-ray March 28, 2017
********* 9/10

IMDB: 8.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%, Audience Score 88%
The Guardian: ****/*****

Juan Antonio García Bayona, better known as J. A. Bayona, is a Spanish film director. He is the guy responsible for The Orphanage, The Impossible, and now A Monster Calls. Which should probably have been called The Monster. Just saying. Anyway, he is now set to direct the fifth instalment of the Jurassic Park film series, Jurassic World II.

Bayona is now going three for three, so I’d say it’s a safe bet that this is a heartfelt and glowing review. Just look at the plot, if you don’t believe me. Taken from Wikipedia…

Young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) must face his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer, his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), his estranged father (Toby Kebbell), and his school bully, Harry (James Melville). One night at 12:07 a.m., Conor encounters the tree-like Monster (Liam Neeson), who tells Conor it has come to relate three true stories, after which Conor will tell the Monster his own story, the truth behind his nightmare. They continue to meet at 12:07 to tell the stories.

First story

An old king who has lost his entire family, save a young grandson, remarries a beautiful young woman. He dies before the prince comes of age, and many believe the queen poisoned the king. Not wanting to hand the kingdom over to the prince in a year, she plots to marry the prince and remain queen. The prince runs away with a farm girl he loves. They stop and sleep under a yew tree (the Monster), but in the morning he finds the young woman murdered. The prince tells the villagers that the queen, a witch, must have done it, and they rally to overthrow her. The monster awakes and joins the mob. Before the commoners can reach the queen, the Monster carries her away to a far-off land where she lives out the rest of her life in peace. Though she was indeed a witch, she did not kill the young woman or the king. The prince had murdered the young woman in order to inspire his people to back him into overthrowing the queen.

Second story

An apothecary follows old traditions and beliefs, using herbs and brews to cure ailments. His business becomes less popular as a local parson tells his congregation not to accept the apothecary’s old ways. When the parson’s two daughters become sick, the parson asks the apothecary to save their lives after all other resources are exhausted. When the apothecary asks why he should help a man who has turned people away from his skills and denied him the yew tree, his best source of healing ingredients, the parson promises to give him the tree and deliver the parishioners to him as customers. Yet the apothecary says that he cannot help, and the girls die. The Monster awakens from the yew tree to destroy the parson’s house and raze it to the ground as punishment.

While the apothecary was a greedy man, he was a healer and would have saved lives, including the girls’, if the parson had allowed him his way of life. The parson was a man of belief, but was willing to discard his beliefs when they were in the way. The healing traditions followed by the apothecary require belief in order to work; without the parson’s, the apothecary was unable to treat the two girls. Belief is half the cure.

Third story

A man was invisible because no one ever saw him. Tired of this, he summoned the Monster to ensure people would take notice.

Fourth story

Conor must confront his nightmare to tell the fourth story. His mother has been pulled to the edge of a cliff by a sudden collapse of the ground, and Conor must hold her hand to save her from falling. Eventually, his grip fails and his mother falls. The Monster forces Conor to confess the truth: Conor loosened his grip on purpose. While he could have held on longer, he let go in order to stop the pain of having to hold on. Conor ultimately understands the complexities of human beings, and that though he doesn’t want his mother to die, he understands it is inevitable and something he must accept, and that he wants the experience to be over.

After this, Connor returns, with the Monster by his side, to comfort his mother one last time, and she dies at 12:07. He returns home with his grandmother, who becomes caring towards him and gives Conor a room of his own, a room that used to be his mother’s. In the room he finds his mother’s old art book, which depicts the characters of the stories that have been told by the Monster, and a drawing of his mother as a child with the Monster.

Sad, thoughtful, and penetrating, A Monster Calls tells a story that we can all relate to, or at the very least, one which means something for the kid in all of us. I don’t know about you, but films which feature the loss of a parent always get me tearing up, but whether that is true for you or not, I can say with damn near perfect timing that Lewis MacDougall has the acting chops necessary to get you to feel the pain of bereavement. It simply is worthwhile.

Pros: The message is accessible, ushering away the monsters of youth with wonderment and fateful stories. Even the darkest moments of the film are made brighter by the authenticity of it’s narrative. Lewis MacDougall shines.

Cons: It can be a struggle to see Sigourney Weaver as a grandmother, and the bullies of the film feel more like pieces to be moved then real characterizations.

Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes

Points of Interest: Liam Neeson appears as Conor’s grandfather in the photo of Conor’s mother as a little girl being carried by her father. The sixth time that Liam Neeson has voiced a CGI character –  three times as Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, Phango in Khumba, and Good Cop/Bad Cop in The Lego Movie.

Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man. That’s how this films opens on the story of Conor, who is watching is mother die of a terminal illness. Where the fantasy intersects with reality is the beauty of this story, and it reminds me of the widely underrated film, Bridge to Terabithia, which also took advantage of childhood fantasy as a device for growing up amidst personal tragedy.

theories Summarized

The stories the Monster tells are really and truly for Conor’s sake, to aid him in his healing. It’s all beautiful and symbolic given that the Monster is a yew tree (known for it’s healing properties), while the Monster and the stories he tells are in fact derivative of Conor’s mothers own childhood drawings.

Most of all there is something moving in knowing that Conor doesn’t understand everything yet, and that might not ever, and the theory that monsters aren’t always what they seem.

Tim!

Eh, It’s Alright (Moana review)

But what do you do if a movie is critically acclaimed, everyone loves it, and all you feel is an underwhelming meh when you think about it?

That’s the question on my mind today dear readers, and we’re about to find out why.

 

 

 

Moana (2016)

Cast: Auli’li Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyck
Director(s): Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, Chris Williams
released on blu-ray March 7, 2017
****** 6/10

IMDB: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%, Audience Score 90%
The Guardian: ****/*****

 

Ron Clements and John Musker have directed a number of Disney Classics, from The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, to less popular choices Hercules, Treasure Planet, and The Princess and the Frog. Don’t get me wrong dear readers, those last three movies are all still good movies, just not as compelling as the first three.

Ron Clements and John Musker also directed Moana. Which has been critically acclaimed and much beloved by the general public. But I am just not that impressed by it.

Co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have a much smaller portfolio, having both worked on Big Hero 6, with Williams co-directing Bolt, and Hall co-directing Winnie the Pooh.

Disney has a history of bringing on several directors for the their films, given the huge teams of people needed to animate their films. Ultimately most of the weight falls on Clements and Musker, and they seemed like the logical choice. But I personally feel like they’ve lost their touch and haven’t really got it back. Heck, they may never get it back.

In the past I would have said that this was largely due to how dull the jokes felt and how ridiculous the characterizations were, but the reality is that those classic Disney films suffer from those problems too. No, the problem with this film is that it plays too safely to a well worn narrative, this time self-congratulating its team members for heavily researching their characters people they portray, in the hopes that they can serve up a fresh batch of disney princess without doing anything innovative.

It bothers me to no end that this feels like yet another rip on Hawaiian culture, while profiting from the people it represents. Yes it’s beautifully depicted and the songs are lovely, but who cares about these generic characters?

Anyone remember Lilo and Stitch? That was an entertaining movie and it was, as they say, authentic. Am I the only one that finds it ironic in one movie breath we hear Lilo say “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind,” and then in another movie breath we get to witness Moana completely go against tradition like oh so many heroes and heroines before her?

And let’s not forget the literally showstopper of a crab voiced by Jemaine Clement and called Tamatoa. He halts the story but good during his time on screen. Which is frustrating because he could have been a really fun supporting character.

Last, but certainly not least when we finally do meet Maui, he’s certainly not a caricature, but he’s definitely not likable either. He’s a bit of jerk with a thin character arc.

I wish the hear of this movie had a better body to house it in, because never really engaged with me at any particular point.

Pros: It’s refreshing to see a lack of a love interest in a Disney story  as done previously in Zootopia and Frozen. And the visuals are amazing. It truly feels like a getaway from the typical fare.

Cons: While it does move away from the love interest trope, it relies so heavily on other established ideas that it becomes evident fairly quickly where the story hasn’t taken any chances. It’s characters are not one-dimensional, but they aren’t engaging either.

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

Points of InterestWhile the film is entirely digitally animated, Maui’s tattoos were hand-drawn into the animation, making Moana a first in over five years to feature true animation. Moana is the first Polynesian of the Disney Princesses.

I realize now that I didn’t get you much of a summary of the film, and for that I am kind of sorry. I really needed to go on a rant about this film. Because I don’t want more them to be made. 100% we should continue to support female protagonists who aren’t dictated by their personal relationships, but that doesn’t mean they need to revisit all of the other tropes that male leads have done over the past 100+ years of film.

End rant.

theories Summarized

What do you think? Did you like Moana? I hope I haven’t been too harsh on this movie. It represents a positive direction, and if Disney can help change minds with its depictions, I’m all for it. I just want to see Moana fight an internal battle or two, have some nuance in her performance. But thats my theory, after all.

Tim!

When Music and Politics Collide (Gord Downie, Secret Path for Chanie Wenjack review)

Politics and music have always been brothers in arms. The connection between expression and intention can be seen in a number of different cultures and subsets of cultures too. While we cannot know the implication of making music that has a political slant, it is in the emotion that we become effected, and hopefully change for the better.

As I hold my chest in anguish and joy, I can say that this project is worth it.

Gord Downie – Secret Path (for Chanie Wenjack)
released October 18, 2016
********** 10/10

forchanie

Gordon Edgar Downie, better known by his stage name Gord Downie, is a Canadian rock musician, writer, and sometime actor. He is also the lead singer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group we all know and love, The Tragically Hip. As an independant artist he has released five solo albums: Coke Machine Glow, Battle of the Nudes, The Grand Bounce, And the Conquering Sun and now Secret Path (for Chanie Wenjack). On the first three of these records, he was backed by the Country of Miracles; with The Grand Bounce specifically credited to Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles.

And I would be remiss not to mention this, but it wasn’t too long ago (May of 2016) that The Tragically Hip announced on their website Downie had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Downie has responded well to treatment, but unfortunately what he has has been deemed as uncurable. Downie toured with the band in the summer 2016 after reporting his cancer and to support Man Machine Poem, the band’s 14th studio album. The band confirmed that the tour would be the final one for the group and it concluded with a concert at Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, the hometown of the band, and it was streamed live by the CBC, viewed by roughly 11 million people.

Then in September 2016, Downie announced he would be releasing a solo album, Secret Path in October, and dedicated it to Chanie Wenjack. The album was also set up with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire and which Downie also collaborated on, and later an animated film. Secret Path is likely the last studio album we’ll ever see by Gord Downie, but interestingly enough, it is not about Gord Downie, not at all.

Maybe I’m guilty of both loving and hating this album immediately for what it represents, but I think you’ll agree that this is a powerful concept album. Chanie Wenjack was a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian residential school while facing brutal winter conditions outside. This is a very sad thing, and one which has marred the history of Canada without “white Canadians” even knowing the impact of it. We have no way of measuring the impact, because the Canadian government stopped recording the deaths of residential school children in the 1920s, and many original records have been lost or destroyed, but an estimated 6000 children lost their lives in an attempt by local churches (funded by the federal government) to “take the Indian out of the child.”

What Secret Path does is tell the story of Chanie and exposes the history of these schools, which is hardly ever mentioned, and certainly not taught.

It starts with The Stranger, and Downie protests that he is stranger, and that you can’t see him. But as the album unfolds we learn how Chanie escaped in Swing Set, what he may have been thinking as he walked the train tracks in I Will Not Be Struck. As the album enters it’s final moments, Haunt Them, Haunt Them, Haunt Them brings the emotions upwards and lets us know that Wenjack will not be forgotten and that the pain is all too real. It becomes even more real with the closing track, Here, Here and Here and how we know the story plays out. But I admit that the album by itself is not a clear indication of what happened, its in the combination of its parts – the album, graphic novel, film, and marketing by brothers Mike and Gord Downie to bring this to light that we feel the weight of it all.

 

 

 

This is not a solution to a non-history, its the beginning of a lesson and a reconciliation which we all need to participate in. The secret path is not so secret any more, and hopefully within a century we’ll be able to look back on this moment as a turning point in our humanity beginning to swell towards embracing all cultures and protecting the previously alienated. Canada has a future, we just need to follow the unbeaten path.

Tim!

Origami That’s Fun And Easy (Kubo and the Two Strings review)

Sometimes a movie does something new, using something old, and reminds you why you love the format so damn much. That’s what this weeks’ movie review is all about, duality, memories and recognizing the importance of story.

It’s kind of baffling that I would get so excited about a good story, but it really is integral in any art form.

 

 

 

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei
Director: Travis Knight
released on blu-ray November 22, 2016
********** 10/10

the-ice-fields

IMDB: 8.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%, Audience Score 87%
The Guardian: *****/*****

 

Travis Knight is an American animator, producer and known for his work as lead animator for Laika Entertainment. And now he is known for directing Kubo and the Two Strings, which is his directorial debut.

Since 2005, Knight has been essential to the stop motion animation of the Laika team, wearing several hats and contributing to both CGI and stop-motion animation for its productions. Namely feature length films such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. He also serves as a member of Laika’s board and was recently nominated for Best Animated Feature on his work for The Boxtrolls.

But what do I think, you ask? Well, this is an amazing film dear readers. Brilliantly animated, with excellent voice acting, and an original story.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who lives with his sick mother, Sariatu (Charlize Theron), in a cave atop a mountain. He tells stories to the local villagers by magically invigorating origami through his three string shamisen. His favourite story is about a warrior named Hanzo who goes on a quest to fight the Moon King. Kubo must head home before sunset each day or her Sisters (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will come for his remaining eye.

One day, Kubo attempts to communicate with his father, the deceased Hanzo… Nothing happens and he becomes angry, staying out past sunset. Sariatu’s Sisters arrive and attack Kubo, but his mother defends him, and impassions him to find Hanzo’s armour. When Kubo awakens the next day he learns that his little wooden monkey charm has been given life by his mother’s magic. Monkey tells him that his mother is dead and that he needs to move to survive. One of Kubo’s origami has come to life in the form of a little Hanzo, and during the quest they find an amnesiac named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a cursed samurai apprentice of Hanzo’s that has taken the form of a beetle. He offers his services to Hanzo’s son.

The first leg of the quest has the three battling a giant skeleton for the sword unbreakable. Next, Kubo uses magic to create a boat of leaves and the expedition sails across Long Lake for the breastplate impenetrable. Beetle and Kubo dive in to retrieve the breastplate. One of the Sisters attacks and Monkey manages to defeat her, but is badly wounded in the process. Kubo realizes Monkey is his mother reincarnated.

Monkey reveals that originally she and her sisters were meant to kill Hanzo, but she fell in love with him, which incensed her family. Kubo dreams and is greeted by Raiden, a blind old man who shows him the location of the helmet invulnerable, the final piece of armor. They head to his father’s damaged fortress, but are ambushed by the remaining Sister, she reveals Beetle is Hanzo, whom the cursed. Beetle is killed, and Monkey sacrifices herself. Two strings of the shamisen are broken in the process Kubo learns his village’s bell is the helmet, breaking the last string and flying back home.

He takes the helmet, but Raiden appears, now the Moon King. He wants Kubo to become blind and immortal like him. Kubo refuses and fights the Moon King, but loses badly. Shedding the armor and re-stringing his shamisen, Kubo uses its magic to recruit the spirits of the deceased villagers, proving memories are more powerful. The spirits shield him engulf Raiden in their magic. The Moon King is defeated, becomes human, and has no memories of his past. The remaining villagers and Kubo create a positive new identity for him. Kubo then communes with his parents spirits and sets their lanterns afloat.

Pros: The themes of spirit, memories, and death are strong, delivered with great emotional care. The animation slowly pulls you into this story, and once you are there it’s impossible not to appreciate the depth of characterization and inspiring message.

Cons: If you like your narrative delivered to you in direct terms, quickly establishing roles and character arcs, this film will not serve it up to you on a silver platter.

Runtime:  1 hour 41 minutes

Points of Interest: The boat sequence took 19 months to shoot, and the entire film consists of at least 145.000 photographs turned into a stop-motion film. The two strings of the film’s title is a theme of duality featured throughout: Mother and father. Night and day. Life and death. Creativity and destruction.

It’s refreshing to see an animated family film that features a prominent and mystical quality to it. A film that prefers to be driven by narrative first and then demand for visual quality, and as a consequence achieve something rare in cinema. An engaging story that pretty much any age group could enjoy thoroughly, but you have to be prepared to listen to it.

Let’s consider something for a second. Have you ever seen origami used so effectively in an animation that is about stories within stories? Kubo is a storyteller that uses song, performance and paper to make stories. That he and his cast of characters are made of the same materials is a point not to be trivialized, these forms can be understand by any age group or culture for that matter. And it makes the use of magic seem that much more significant. I loved this movie, and I hope you take the time to go see it for yourself creative cuties. I’m out of theories for now, but rest assured, I’ll be back tomorrow with something about what’s coming.

Tim