Bolt: The Under-Performing Dog

 

Bolt is a very interesting movie.

I saw it for the first time ever this week, and when it was over, what struck me the most abruptly was how un-Disney-like it felt. The story, the animation, the music choices; almost everything about it smacked of a whole different studio. Not a particularly bad or cheap studio production by any means; it just felt very off brand, at least compared to mainstream, theatrical Disney.

The 2000’s was not a good time for animation overall, whether it be in movies or television, and these were certainly the years that Disney floundered a little bit trying to find a new angle.

The story is a weird mix of The Truman Show and Home Alone, spiced sparingly with a bit of Spy Kids. The main character is a dog named Bolt. An entire television studio, in addition to the dog’s owner, have convinced Bolt that he has been genetically altered, and that he is basically a super dog with the sole purpose of protecting his owner, Penny, from sinister forces. Think Inspector Gadget’s niece, because she has the same first name and basically serves that role, except she’s the daughter of a brilliant scientist who has been captured and refuses to help the bad guys for anything short of saving her life.

The tv studio does this because if Bolt believes with all of his heart that this is true, his “acting” will be powerful, sincere, and believable. But one day, in an attempt to try something new, Penny is “captured” in a cliffhanger ending, and after the set is closed and everyone leaves, Bolt escapes, desperate to save Penny from danger. He ends up being knocked out and accidentally shipped across the country, where he slowly discovers who he really is and what it means to be a real dog. Then, he must find his way home, assisted by a delusional hamster, a cynical cat, and occasionally some New York and California pigeons.

 

It’s a very odd story; not the kind of thing Disney usually does, and definitely not an area in which they shine. In that regard, its closest companion might be The Emperor’s New Groove, but even The Emperor’s New Groove feels like the Disney-fying of a non-Disney concept, and a good, successful one at that. While I liked a lot about it, Bolt, as a finished product, feels at best like as a Disney Channel original movie. Good, but not a classic I will return to many more times. Definitely leagues above Home on the Range and Chicken Little, though that’s not saying much.

Why is that exactly? Well, for one thing, the story is ridiculously hard to believe right off the bat. The world within the film doesn’t lend itself to suspension of disbelief, because it’s supposed to be our modern day, but it’s stacked so precariously and fragilely that you’re surprised it hasn’t come crashing down already. Everything revolves around this one dog…why is that again? I know this is a movie for kids, but how much of this should I take seriously and how much of this is supposed to be satire of some kind? It’s not focused and it’s not glued together very well.

Another thing is that I didn’t really relate to any of the characters. They were…nice, and I liked them okay, but it was a very shallow sort of feeling. I wasn’t invested outside of my general sympathy for a cute animal getting lost and a fellow pet parent being worried. I liked Mittens the cat best of all because she acts as the beleaguered straight man who has to put up with delusional, possibly crazy people, but that also made me dislike Bolt more, as he dangled her over a busy highway and nearly got them both killed trying to jump onto a fast moving train.

I can’t ever remember the Hamster’s name (p.s. It was Rhino), but he was the most annoying character, and his design gave me unpleasant flashbacks to Norm of the North.

 

The music isn’t bad, but it’s also not particularly memorable. The celebrity voices are only slightly distracting, mostly because John Travolta’s adult voice doesn’t really fit his cute character design, but that’s not a new in the world of animation, and if you’re a kid, you probably wouldn’t notice anyway. The animation is decent, though it doesn’t have Disney or Pixar’s traditional charm.

What more can I say about Bolt? It’s just a perfectly average movie, fine to watch and fine to show your kids.

Still, of all of the things that bizarre, bumbling 2000’s era of Disney produced, I’d sooner recommend Meet the Robinsons. That was the best and most meaningful film that happened during the Eisner shift.

 

Final Score: 5.5/10

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Top 5 Disney “Princesses”

I love Disney. Can you tell?

Despite its flaws as a company and an artistic entity, Disney has just enough redeeming qualities to keep us coming back. It has pioneered animation ever since its inception, creating beautiful, moving stories based on fairytales, folk stories, and literature, and it has also utilized and inspired new technology, such as fantasound in the 1940’s.

Walt Disney has built an empire out of his versions of stories and characters, whether you love them, hate them, or love to hate them, and it’s impossible to deny the influence his creations have had on many of our childhoods. Men have the overall advantage in society, to put it mildly, and so many prominent female figures in the media become role models to the growing women of the future, for better or worse. As I’ve said in the past, many people like to focus on the negative impact of Disney’s views and portrayals of women, but by now, you know me. With some exceptions, I like to be a bit more fair-minded, and observe how far the company has come in its near-decade of existence.

As a once-girl-now-woman, I’d like to share with you my top 5 favorite female Disney characters. They can be characters that I have liked the most or ones that have influenced me and my worldview in these 20 or so short years of life, but one thing is for sure: they are all awesome women in my mind. They practically need no introduction.

 

5. Merida

 

While she still gets the honor of breaking into my top 5, Merida ranks the lowest for me because of her youthful obnoxiousness. She has many admirable traits, one of which is wanting to go against the prim-and-proper future that her mother has planned out for her, but she’s somewhere between Ariel and Aurora when it comes to emotional and mental maturity. She wants what she wants and is willing to do stupid things to get it, barely questioning her motivations or the people offering her easy solutions at all.

I’m not saying she’s not relatable, because she definitely is. She wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t seriously relate to her. It’s just that some of her antics are like watching a kid throw a tantrum. They might have a good reason for being upset, but it can still be an annoying way to try and resolve the problem.

 

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I felt the need to grow up more quickly than the kids around me. Immature characters need something more for me to really, deeply admire them, and while Merida is good, she’s not the best I’ve seen. Her movie was also a lot smaller scale than what many people were expecting from the trailers, so while it’s not a bad coming-of-age, mother-and-daughter-understanding narrative, it’s also not as epic and engaging as most Disney and Pixar fare.

But regardless, Merida is rebellious and wild, much like her stunning CG hair. I love her design, and as someone with Scottish heritage, it’s nice to see and hear some Scottish influence gracing the mainstream silver screen. Merida also likes what one might traditionally described as “boy things,” and is very proficient as a rider and an archer. It’s refreshing to see that, by the end of her movie, she doesn’t have to compromise her hobbies or her tomboy-ish nature as part of the growing-up process. She teaches her strict mother a lesson while learning an important one of her own: communication and understanding are what grow relationships, not trying to force one another to change.

Merida is clearly a “girl” more than she is a “woman,” and that’s okay. It works for her story and character arc, and at the end of the day, that’s all I really ask. I just like to see some more growth into womanhood, and what that means.

 

4. Belle

 

Belle is kick-ass, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. She stands up to a beast twice her size and doesn’t take any of his childish nonsense. She’s beautiful, but she is neither shy nor jerky about it. She reads in a time when women aren’t expected to, and does so openly and without apology. She sees Gaston’s rapey swagger and raises him a one-way, face-first trip to the mud.

Is Belle a bit too perfect? It’s certainly possible, but she’s also the kind of person many of us wish we could be, without appearing too preachy as a role model (see Cinderella). She’s selfless, gorgeous, quirky, brave, snarky, and pretty confident in her own skin. She loves her family and would do anything for them, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness. She also seeks adventure and excitement in a life of perceived drudgery and stigmatization. So while she may be a bit too reasonable and too self-actualized from the beginning of the story, she is still very relatable and likeable.

As mentioned before, I also love her voice acting and reflexive expressions. She shows a lot of her character through those attributes alone.

 

Beauty and the Beast is less of a story about Belle’s growth and more about the growth of the Beast, through her eyes. Yes, she learns to love someone she once feared and despised, but she ultimately teaches her prince more than he taught her. You could argue that she is feminist improvement of Cinderella, the woobie who exists to laud the values of Christian martyrdom and patience, by being smarter, more outspoken, and more assertive about her boundaries. And while I do think that Cinderella gets more criticism than she deserves, when looking at the intent of Mr. Disney, I wouldn’t entirely disagree with this idea. My reading of that story is a more modern take, and I admit that.

But I digress.

On a more self-serving note, Belle is also the first brunet princess. Represent, brown-haired ladies!

 

3. Moana

 

Moana is a small-island girl who longs for adventure on the high seas. As someone who has always loved the ocean, I found a kindred spirit in her right away.

Moana is young and uncertain, but reasonably so, given her upbringing. She has a good sense of duty and family, and though her passion is not encouraged by her parents (out of fear for her safety), she bonds with her grandmother over their mutual fascination with the sea, which kind of bridges the two worlds she inhabits. She struggles with her desire to sail and her desire to lead her people, as she sees the two options as mutually exclusive. A good chief must think of her people and do all that she can to help them, and while her parents have taught her the traditional way to be a chief, and have made good points about the dangers of the ocean, her destiny is to go there, and the fact that they have shielded her from the outside world has not adequately prepared her for what she must do.

This story may resonate particularly well with Millennials, many of whom feel that they were not properly prepared for the demands and stresses of the “adult world.”

 

Moana finds an unlikely teacher in Maui, the cocky but secretly scarred demi-god who is responsible for the problems that threaten to engulf her island. She learns a great deal from him while also teaching him what it truly means to be a hero of man…and woman. Moana is a force of unyielding love and forgiveness, even in the face of her own self-doubt; she shows Maui and even Te Ka that they don’t have to be defined by their past and the people who have hurt them. She also finds joy and even strength in the discovery and embracing of her heritage, especially at the start of the film.

She’s just a good, good character. I’m not sure what more I can say about her that isn’t just dancing around that main point.

 

2. Mulan

 

Disney’s first fighting princess, and to quote Lindsay Ellis, “the only princess with a body count.”

But seriously, Mulan is awesome. Her movie, while simplifying a lot about Chinese culture, is very feminist and even queer. Mulan disguises herself as a man in order to join the Chinese army in place of her ailing father, and while she initially struggles to adapt, she finds more freedom and satisfaction than she ever had in the restrictive roles of “woman” and “daughter.” Mulan finds strengths that she never knew she had and as a result, she saves her country almost single-handedly. It is so satisfying to see her rewarded, and to see the people who initially dismissed her enlightened or receiving comeuppance for their stubborn clinging to the past.

Her movie is by no means perfect or free of problematic elements, much like many Disney movies. As I said, Mickey Mouse-ifying Chinese culture or just using it as an exotic backdrop is definitely patronizing and annoying. But at the same time, you might call it a crucial step in Disney’s learning process, which has resulted in more culturally-respectful movies like Moana. And however meager it may seem, it does count as Chinese representation in a mainstream, well-liked medium, which I think makes it overall a positive step forward despite its flaws.

Mulan shares many of the traits of women on this list. She loves her family, but goes against them to follow what she knows is right. She is smart when her confidence is bolstered, and she finds unconventional solutions to problems, like defeating the entire Hun army with a well-timed avalanche. Mulan finds herself by going against the grain and doing what was previously considered “man’s work,” but unlike Merida, she finds more of a balance between the feminine and masculine aspects of her life. While we don’t get too deep into her life prior to becoming a soldier, we can assume that she liked certain aspects of womanhood. Just not the whole “get auctioned off to the highest bidder and be his submissive bride and breedmule for life” thing. She clearly isn’t wild about that, on top of not being very good at it.

 

Mulan doesn’t fit into either the male or female world perfectly, either by Western or Eastern standards. She excels in the in-between, and that is what people like about her.

The only really disappointing thing she does is turn down a position on the Emperor’s council, but it might be somewhat unfair to expect her to be completely selfless and keep pushing the boundaries for Chinese women everywhere. She is only one person, after all, and the entire impetus of her story is the desire to keep her family together. It makes sense that she would want to appreciate the fruits of her labor in person.

Mulan is a “girl power” character, but her praise is by no means cheap or unearned. Sometimes that phrase is used as a derogative, accompanied by an eye roll or a sneer, but those people – let’s face it, many of them are men – are usually less concerned about balanced female representation than they are threatened by any kind of social politics “invading their movies.” They seemingly ignore how many movies that they love have explicit or implicit political themes, and simply bash on increased diversity as being only “for diversity’s sake.” See the new Star Wars trilogy as an example of this.

 

At times Mulan can come across as a bit bland, but her movie is fun and funny and full of likeable characters, which makes up for that in my humble opinion. While it’s not my favorite, I come back to Mulan probably more than any other Disney movie. It brings me joy, and a large part of that is due to Mulan herself. She’s a quiet badass, changing the world one slaughtered army at a time.

 

  1. Esmeralda

 

 

She may not be an official Disney Princess, but I’m counting her, goddamn it!

Esmeralda is my favorite female Disney character, and I find her movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to be criminally underrated. While it deviates heavily from the book and has some cringe-worthy “comedic” bits, it also contains adult themes that Disney has never tackled before, or ones that were only lightly touched-upon in the past. Lust, religion, xenophobia, genocide, parental abuse; these and many more appear very blatantly in Hunchback, making it a very dark and powerful story about human nature. The score and the art design are also very striking, making the story all the more memorable in Disney’s arguably homogenous lineup.

The movie has some unfortunate depictions of the gypsies as thieves and murders, but some of it could be accepted as them needing to protect themselves and their people from Frollo’s spies. Many people also complain that Esmeralda is overly-sexualized and how this is a harmful stereotype for many female minorities, but again, problematic elements do not necessarily cancel out good characters. Esmeralda is sexualized in part because Frollo objectifies her, and while he never learns to see her as a person, Quasimodo does.

 

As a person, Esmeralda is funny as hell, particularly in her fight with Phoebus and the latter half of the Festival of Fools. She’s witty and snarky when the moment calls for it, but she’s also proactive as a heroine; she is fiercely defensive of her people, demanding without apology that they be treated just like everyone else. While she does gasp at Quasimodo at first, she is quick to befriend him, showing that her convictions are strong and she is truly a kind, understanding person. She really does believe in freedom and equality for all people, and she can and will fight for it.

 

Esmeralda, much like Belle, is a self-actualized character from the get-go; she knows who she is and what she’s about without needing to learn or grow very much. What makes her compelling, however, is her bravery in facing the challenges of her people and of the time. She fights back against soldiers who try to steal her hard-earned money. She stops Quasimodo’s humiliation at the festival and stands up to Frollo, not knowing the depth of Frollo’s madness and his growing lust for her. Esmeralda risks her own safety for what is right, despite her fear, and though she lives in such a cruel world, she is still kind and forgiving to those who prove that they deserve it. Adversity sucks, but seeing such a good character arise in those circumstances is all the more admirable.

And while she does need to be rescued, Esmeralda is not a traditional helpless damsel. Her plight makes sense and she resists as much as she is able.

 

Not to play into her criticism, but Esmeralda is also gorgeous. I’d be lying if I said she didn’t make me question a few things as a child. One physical thing of note is her piercing green eyes. In the past, green eyes were thought to be a sign of evil, and many of Disney’s early villains do possess that feature. It just goes to subvert what Frollo and society say about Esmeralda, namely that she is wicked and deceitful. She is exactly who she presents herself to be, unlike Frollo, who hides his sinister desires and motives behind the mantle of God and His will.

 

So that is my list. Do you agree? Disagree? Who are your favorite Disney women?

Why are Christian Movies So Cringey?

 

Christian films are, by and large, terrible. The writing is terrible, the dialogue is terrible, and the special effects, if any, are cheap and minimal. They try to hard to be “hip” and “with it,” causing them to fail spectacularly. There is no sense of self-awareness or any desire to answer difficult questions, so many ventures boil down to flimsy affirmations and comforting pity parties over supposed religious persecution, all because they can’t force all children to pray in schools. If you’re drinking, take a sip for all of these being present in a film, and one extra if there is at least one jerk “atheist” character.

I say “atheist” in air quotes because oftentimes, it’s a character who does in fact believe in God, but is mad at him for some reason. Note to the writers: that’s not atheism. That’s called misotheism.

 

C Me Dance, God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, I’m Not Ashamed. They remind me of environmental movies. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we were inundated with film after film about man destroying the planet, with humans fitting into one of three categories: man who has “seen the light,” man who has yet to “see the light,” and evil man. Misguided humans had a chance of redemption, but otherwise, you were either with nature or actively fighting against it. No shades of grey, and no subtlety.

It’s a shame to me to see this happen to Christian films. I was raised as an Episcopalian, and the strongest lesson in my memory has always been “love thy neighbor as thyself.” My church focused less on “repent ye sinners” and more on the idea of being kind to one another, encouraging us to make the Earth a loving place on par with Heaven itself.

I have also seen some very good and interesting movies based on Bible stories, such as The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments. Comparing the effort that was put into those films with the slog of awful, cheap pandering films that have come out in recent years feels like comparing a fillet mignon steak with a Hungry Man T.V. dinner.

 

Even something like Oh God was less preachy and demonizing, mostly because it could be genuinely funny. And God was just so likable!

It made suggestions for interpreting God’s motivations and laws, and didn’t paint its skeptical lead character too harshly, or too positively after he started to really believe. Its tone was curious and wondering, seeking to understand what a massive, enigmatic figure might be thinking about His creations, whereas Pure Flix movies and their ilk want you to never question God.

As someone who still considers herself a Christian, I don’t want weaksauce pandering. I don’t want to see wimpy arguments and enemies being straw-manned just to make myself feel superior. I actually like difficult questions and being made to think about what I am being given, though I am sure that is not to everyone’s taste. But still, could we maybe try a little harder? Make an actually compelling argument, outside of “Christianity good, everything else bad because we say so”?

 

Really, these movies are prime wish-fulfillment. The makers and their audiences want to believe that they are the good guys, and that anyone who opposes them is just bitter and Devil-enabled, trying to block their righteous path. They see the world as an awful place full of sin and temptation; you know, violent video games and sexually-charged media and the like. They want wholesome, family entertainment, but hey, maybe they’ll find a Christian rock band to throw in there to give it the barest facsimile of “coolness.” That way they can draw in the kiddies, and pretend that they aren’t completely out-of-touch with the world they fear so much.

On some level, I get it. I understand that times and standards are constantly changing, and that can be scary. But it also speaks of a level of selfishness, wanting things to stay exactly the way they are, and only wanting their own religious beliefs to be catered to and validated. My biggest issue with modern Christianity is how many of its practitioners seek to control people and stamp out any dissent, any questioning of authority or text. Some of them also use their faith as a status symbol, propelling them above the rest of their fellow men because they are “God’s chosen people.” That is not what I was raised to value, and when I see how much actual persecution occurs in the name of Christianity, it makes me sick and angers me deep down in my core.

Christian movies are bad now because they’re hypocritical. They attack science as if it’s some kind of faith that people blindly follow, instead of replicable, established series of theories and experiments. They attack atheists and non-believers for being rude and mean without a word about how many Christians snub those outside of their circles. They want to be able to preach in schools, but God help you if someone of Muslim or Hindu faith requested the same privilege. These films don’t understand basic laws or structures, put in place just as much to protect them as to limit them. They just want to cry persecution and smirk smugly when their characters win in the end.

What was once a decent enough sub-genre is now a ghetto of thought and creativity. There are also some pretty unsettling ideas about gender roles in there too, as you might imagine.

 

In my opinion, tested faith is stronger and more substantial than blind faith. Conversion by well-reasoned arguments is so much better than that by threats of death and hellfire. If you really want to convert more people, think of how to appeal to their curiosity, and the critical side of their brain.

Well, that, and don’t be a pompous jerk about it.

The Incredibles 2: Less Gritty and More Fun

 

Upfront, I think I might like this more than the original.

Let me explain.

The original The Incredibles is a great commentary on the average white American’s blue-collar family life, mixing with great superhero satire. It is a classic film with some great jokes, but as strange as it might sound, I found it needlessly mean-spirited at times. I liked all of the characters, and that is exactly the problem. Watching Helen and Bob’s marriage teeter around on the rocks and Bob’s struggles with fitting into the regular world was depressing. Watching a man break down in tears of despair and then nearly snap a woman in half because he thinks his entire family was murdered, all while his children are being hunted down to be murdered is pretty dark, even if Bob does learn a lesson from it in the end.

It’s almost like the movie relishes the unpleasantness, lingering on it long after I’m ready to move on to the next scene. Bad things just keep on happening, and they only really let up completely at the end or during the brief “Bob’s Secret Life” montage. Hell, the movie even includes a suicide attempt at the beginning, and the man then sues Bob for saving his life.

Comedic gold, am I right?

 

Also, with each passing year, I’ve been learning more and more about the world. After multiple viewings, Bob becomes more selfish and even somewhat frightening in my eyes, as I watch him put himself above everyone else in his family and displays violent, dangerous lapses in judgment, even before his tragic breakdown. The man has some serious unchecked anger issues, and he never acknowledges the fact that he could have easily killed his boss at the beginning of the movie. The worst he gets admonished for is being pig-headed, overprotective, and living in the past.

The sequel gives much more development to Helen, showing her capabilities as a hero and a person without Bob being there to upstage her. It even chastises Bob for being reckless, destructive, and thoughtless, which he refuses to acknowledge or take personal responsibility for in the first film. That’s very refreshing.

It also gives more personality to Violet, who seemed like a shy, socially-awkward potential stalker in the first film. In many ways, she is shown to be just as immature as Dash, but she and her brother get moments of competency as well.

 

The political commentary isn’t quite as punchy or poignant this time around, but it does raise an interesting point about human laziness and complacency, as many people are hypnotized into certain actions using T.V. and monitors. The villain is decently menacing in his anonymity and ability to take control, and while there is a point to be made, Helen also demonstrates how people with “power” should do the right thing if they are able to help. There is a certain complacency to be found in leaders and political officials as well, if they sell their influence without question and never have to make tough decisions. All people need to take responsibility for their lives and the lives of those for whom they care, further illustrated by Bob becoming a house dad and managing a demon baby.

There’s no indictment of political correctness this time around, but that is fine in my opinion. In today’s climate, 14 years after the previous movie, it can sometimes seem like a flimsy excuse to be a jerk, or just defend the status quo. Strength has always been valued over sensitivity to other’s feelings, as femininity is something to be avoided by men at all costs. But this movie feels like a progressive answer to that mentality, empowering Helen, the flexible, intelligent wonder woman, and forcing Bob to appreciate all that she has done in service to him and the family. Bob is left alone with only himself and his children, which leads to him growing as a man and a father, and showing him that his way is not always the best way. He opens himself up to vulnerability, and while it is a hard process, he becomes stronger in a different sense.

 

Brad Bird, the director of both films, has told us each family member’s power and what it represents about their character. Helen stretches because she’s a mom and needs to accommodate others, while Bob is strong because he’s the man of the house. While the first film seemed to reinforce this as the norm, the sequel challenges those traditional age and gender roles, giving each character a chance to be more than who they were initially, all while keeping them likeable and relatable.

The Incredibles is still great, don’t get me wrong; I am very glad it exists. But the drama is heavy and often sadistic in the pursuit of biting social commentary. It’s somewhat odd in a film that spends so much time satirizing goofy comic book tropes, like villains giving long monologues, allowing their captives ample time to escape and stop them. It’s probably the closest thing to a black comedy that has ever been marketed to kids, and I think adults appreciated it more than their children did, for the most part.

The message of your work is very important, but for once, I’d like to remind filmmakers that they are also here to entertain us. Darkness and drama are good when they serve the story, but too much of them just for their own sakes runs the risk of turning people off. The Incredibles 2 dials back the cruelty of its predecessor while still keeping the essential heart intact. It’s not quite as memorable, but it comes closer than I expected.

 

7/10

*Note: The images in this post do not belong to me.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Rant

I went into Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom expecting an entertaining, brainless, B-movie romp with decent special effects. What I didn’t expect was how much the movie would piss me off in the end.

Allow me to explain. Spoilers ahead.

Oh sorry. Wrong picture.

Anyway, the plot is ripped straight from The Lost World of Jurassic Park.“Let’s save some dinosaurs in a preserve!” cry the tree-huggers who clearly haven’t witnessed these creatures trample and eat people. Or if they have, they somehow ignore that little fact. But some evil guys want to trap the dinosaurs and sell them to the highest bidder, which totally makes our heroes better people when they decide to set them loose. A little girl joins the two mains, and after a bunch of stuff on the island, the killer dinos then end up in the United States.

…Oh, and Ian Malcolm is back too, albeit in two cameos. That’s another glaring similarity.

The characters are generally less annoying than in Lost World, but one guy in the new cast makes up for that. Franklin, the shrill, screaming, constantly-moaning-about-who-talked-him-into-this twenty-something activist who hogs every scene he’s in with over-the-top reactions and whining. I think that he is meant to be comedic, but for all that I am willing to accept from fearful characters in danger, this gent is supremely annoying.

Pro tip: you can have an annoying character without thoroughly annoying your audience. It’s something of an art, but it’s not impossible, given a little thought.

The villain and plot are, as usual, predictable. I’d give the movie points for trying to hide it better than some of the Jurassic Park sequels, but basically it comes down to this: the rich guy is evil. It’s always the rich guy or the military guy, if not both of them. They don’t even have to do anything suspicious at first; you just know. Jurassic World has this in common with the Alien series, and quite a few other sci-fi movies, actually. We could use a shake-up in the formula.

Also, when did B.D. Wong scientist become such a jerk? He seemed nice in the original movie, but since Jurassic World, he’s officially on Team Evil. I guess you shouldn’t trust the scientists either…

The effects are okay. They’re about as good as its predecessor’s, and those were fine. Not Jurassic Park good, because the use of CG is too frequent and noticeable, but passable.

There are a few scenes reminiscent of the first Jurassic Park, which I admit I enjoyed a lot.

The acting is fine. Again, it doesn’t measure up to the classic Spielberg actors and their charisma, but it’s fine. I don’t want them to die at least, which is essential for drama and tension in any good story. There’s more “will-they-won’t-they” from Claire and Owen, but I can’t tell you how little I care about their relationship. It’s so low that it might be hovering near the center of the Earth by now.

A problem I have with the story is that it raises a few interesting ideas and then completely ignores them, opting instead for the answer you’d expect out of one of those really out-of-touch, militant vegans.  The film certainly knows that the dinosaurs are dangerous; it reminds you of this almost every five minutes once the characters reach the island. And yet it constantly also tries to make you feel sad for them, which accounts for the very few poignant, emotional moments in the story. The tone is all over the place, which is confusing, and much like in Lost World, the preaching about animal welfare from the characters often comes across as ignorant or whiny, as the dinosaurs trample, bite, and tear apart numerous people, some of whom I assume were just doing their job.

I can get behind putting some dinosaurs on a preserve island where humans can’t bother them and they can’t harm humans.  Now that they exist again, they might as well be left alone, supposing that they can be successfully contained. But once the dinosaurs are in California, and it’s a choice between letting them go extinct again or setting them loose in vastly human-populated land, the main characters allow them to go free and terrorize the night away… Well, Claire and Owen almost allow them to go extinct before the clone child they picked up makes the decision for them, claiming she “had to” for some unclear reason.

Yes, by the way, the movie brings up human cloning, and it sounds like it should be a big deal, but the characters barely react to it. It’s almost as though it was a pointless addition that served no purpose at all.

You can’t have it both ways, movies! You can’t keep preaching at me about playing God when you make thoughtless, blockbuster action thrillers entirely reliant on that premise and expect me to keep taking those preachings seriously! You’re clearly not going to stop anytime soon! And now you’re trying to push animal rights and welfare on us too, with the characters doing something utterly loathsome and reprehensible for the sake of these animals? I hope they get sued for every man, woman, and child that is harmed because they thought “dinosaurs are cool” was a good enough reason to commit mass murder.

I was astounded when they opened up the cages and gates to the holding facility. I love animals and believe in caring for and preserving them, but there is a limit to my compassion. There is a limit because, as far as scientists and behavioral psychologists can guess, animals don’t possess the same level of awareness and thought that we do. We don’t debate much about their potential souls or the nature of their existence. If this were to change, then maybe my limit would change, but at the moment, I value human life higher than that of animals, and so too, I think, do most sane people.

You might be able to cheer when “comeuppance” happens to the bad guys, but it’s a a lot harder to ignore when it’s heavily implied that hundreds of innocent people will die from this.

The movie doesn’t even bother to tie it into the clone girl Maisie’s existence or feelings in any way. She commits the heinous act, but we get no insight as to why or what this might mean for her or the dinosaurs up to or after what she does. About halfway through, the film does try to say that Blue the Raptor has amazing capacity for empathy and thought for her species, but that’s about it. Barely any set-up and no concrete payoff.

Basically I’m mad because I wasn’t here to think, God damn it! I was here to see dinosaurs chase people and destroy things; exactly what you promised me, movie! Why are you trying to make me think? And moreover, why are the attempts so half-assed?

4/10

*The images used in this post do not belong to me. Also, #NotAllVegans

The Wicker Man: The Good and the Bad

Happy belated May Day, everyone!

The twist to The Wicker Man (1973) is not all that surprising. It’s essentially given away in the name, and you can take your best guess at who its intended victim is.  But where The Wicker Man shines is also where it is most problematic: its demonizing fear of Paganism.

The basic plot is this: upon receiving an anonymous letter about a missing child, Sergeant Neal Howie ventures to Summerisle to investigate. All that he knows about the remote island initially is that it is famous for growing delicious apples, but upon arriving, the pious policeman finds an isolated community deeply entrenched in Pagan practices, and surprisingly short on apples for the coming year. The people behave strangely when questioned, offering various unhelpful answers about the child’s whereabouts, almost as if they are trolling him. Some even say that she is dead. But Howie is particularly disturbed by the traditions he witnesses, some of which are related to the upcoming May Day celebration.

Everyone in the tavern sings bawdily about having sex with the landlord’s daughter, and it is presented as a rite of passage into manhood. Children talk about the phallic significance of maypoles in school, and dance naked and jump over fires to increase fertility. People have sex in open fields and breastfeed their babies in the cemetery. Frogs are even stuck in your mouth to cure a sore throat. Everything seems to be very old and based on old-world beliefs and superstitions.

 

The cinematography shoots everything from the perspective of an outsider, with many shots cutting back to Howie’s stern, unamused, or horrified face. The camera lingers on the taboo and strange to emphasize how alien and uncivilized it is, and yes, even for a bit of scandalous titillation. Despite his revulsion, Howie is somewhat tempted by the shameless, uncomplicated society that Summerisle has cultivated. If most horror movies represent a cultural anxiety of the times in which they are made, this complexity in the main character may represent the mutual disdain and desire to return to a life of ignorance, where people can live, at least in part, as animals.

That said, much like with A Quiet Place, I think this film would be better suited by the Suspense-Thriller genre label, as most of it is more unnerving than outright, in-your-face horrifying. At least in comparison to most horror films.

Lord Summerisle, played by the immortally awesome Christopher Lee, explains that his grandfather bred new strands of apple trees while encouraging the island’s inhabitants to practice their beliefs, saying that their old gods would help them grow and prosper. It is unclear how much he personally believes, but he clearly benefits off of the people’s labor and happiness, so he encourages them as well. In addition to the mystery of potential child murder, this lends an extra layer of creepiness to the island, as if it is a hive mind with a conniving, manipulative puppet master.

 

I find this somewhat funny as a modern-day Episcopalian who sees elements of manipulation and ignorance in Christianity, as well as all other organized religions. The Wicker Man is not subtle in its condemnation of Paganism as a whole; we are meant to side with Howie – despite how prudish he is shown to be – and be horrified by the archaic, bizarre activities we see on the island, as if Christianity has no repurposed Pagan traditions and celebrations incorporated into its own, and many of its ministers don’t also encourage blind faith and adherence to rules over critical thinking. But then again, this movie came out in a different era, and we still live in a time in which many people refuse to examine their beliefs and doctrines, so who am I to judge?

Christianity is not the oldest religion alive, but given its age, it is funny to me that it would be presented as the “modern” and “proper” world fighting against the old, “lawless” world of Paganism. Is this meant to be a change vs rigid tradition story? That’s a laugh. And hey, unless Lord Summerisle’s grandfather kept the people completely in the dark about his agronomy, which is not explicitly stated, we can assume that the island’s people are not completely against innovation. It gave them new trees off of which they could profit.

In fact, Howie is shown to be the person who cannot tolerate differences, the “changes” he sees from his life on the Scottish mainland. So is it just “Christianity good, anything else bad”? Because even if Howie is laughed at by his coworkers, being too Christian is shown to be better than too Pagan. We don’t even see a middle-ground Pagan, unless you count Lord Summerisle, who may or may not believe anything that he’s selling.

But I digress.

 

The main tension of the film comes from what happened to Rowan Morrison, the child in question, and whether or not she is dead or being held somewhere, perhaps waiting to be sacrificed, and it is very effective. A secondary tension arises from the strange words and actions of the people, whose suspiciousness feels increasingly deliberate as Howie explores Summerisle. Even knowing that the wicker man is going to come into play, you just want to know what makes them tick, why they live and behave so differently than what you, the viewer. It’s a very Alice in Wonderland kind of story, in which the effect can sometimes be that, despite being told that the answer is ignorance and madness, you can’t help but think there has to be another reason there. It can be just as fascinating as it is creepy, at least to a person like me.

Sergeant Howie is a compelling character in some ways, but he’s also a stick in the mud who has to speak up about every little thing that he doesn’t agree with. The problem with having your main character be a “straight man” reacting to weirdos all around him, especially one as strict as Howie, is that sometimes, that character ends up with no personality as a result. We know that he loves God and that is about it. Unless you’re onboard with his one character trait 100%, it’s hard to form a strong connection with him, so you only want him to escape this endeavor alive is because…he’s a person. On a basic level, human beings don’t want other human beings to die, but if you don’t feel connected to him (or worse, find him actively annoying or unpleasant), he may as well be some random guy in a crowd, about to get stomped on by Godzilla. Sure, it sucks, but you’ll get over it quickly.

He also doesn’t bring any backup with him to the island, which, even for what might be a short-staffed police force, seems glaringly unwise on his part. At least in this day and age; maybe it was totally different in the 70’s.

 

As I mentioned, a consequence of this movie is believing that all who identify as Pagan are backwards, immoral, and scary, and that they endorse animal or human sacrifice. This is, of course, not true, and I doubt that many Pagans appreciate the fear mongering. In reality, Paganism is vast and diverse. It is just another group of beliefs that people choose to follow in the course of their lives, and those individuals are no more prone to immoral or violent actions than anyone else.

Unfortunately, some downsides of the horror genre are that some people either miss the nuanced commentary, or they interpret it correctly, but it’s only real message was “othering and fearing this person/group is justified!” Not every director chooses to criticize and challenge societal paranoia, and while the resulting movies like The Wicker Man can still be good movies on their own, they then encourage or exacerbate trends that are problematic and potentially harmful to real people. For a similar example, check out Lindsay Ellis’s video essay My Monster Boyfriend, in which she talks about the racial coding of monster movies, dating all the way back to Birth of a Nation.

So yes, while I think The Wicker Man does a good job maintaining some suspense and tension, despite giving a lot away in its title and DVD box art, I also think that it presents an overblown, unfair stereotype of Pagans. And some things that the movie wants you to be unnerved by are less evil than they are just generally frowned upon in a prim and proper society with Judeo-Christian roots. Willow, the innkeeper’s daughter, is painted as an evil siren seductress, and we’re supposed to be shocked by how much sex she has. I’m sorry, but isn’t this taking place in the 70’s? Wasn’t there a big sexual revolution around that time? I mean, how dare she be active and consenting in her relationships with men and like it as much as she does!

I watch this movie once a year, usually on May Day itself, and I think it is worth watching because it’s more complicated than it appears. Also, Christopher Lee is arguably the best thing about the whole production. He even gets a song in the extended version!

 

7/10

*Note: None of the images used in this post belong to me.

A Quiet Review

 

A good horror movie knows how to set an atmosphere. It doesn’t rely solely on jump-scares, loud noises, and manipulative music. A good horror movie knows that fear of the unknown and things that we do not see can be much more effective than overly-creepy imagery shoved right in your face.

A Quiet Place feels more like a suspenseful thriller than a horror film – more akin to Jaws and Cujo rather than A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Exorcist – but even so, John Krasinski and his team make it wonderfully creepy as well.

The premise is simple: aliens that hunt almost exclusively by sound have landed on Earth, decimating most of the U.S. population in a matter of days. It is unclear how many other countries around the world have also fallen. One small group of survivors is the Abbott family, and they adapt to the new, hostile environment around them by making as little sound as they possible can. Luckily for them, they are all fluent in ASL, as the daughter Regan is deaf.

This leads to the most interesting aspect of the film: 80% of the dialogue is unspoken. Background music is also used sparingly, at least in comparison to most other movies.

Admittedly, this is somewhat of a gimmick. Regardless of genre, most movies have speaking all throughout, so A Quiet Place stands out and markets itself on that standing. But the reason for the silence in the film’s universe doesn’t feel cheap or poorly thought-out. Rather the reverse; I think its implementation is actually very clever.

 

It reminds me of what I learned in school; when it comes to human beings communicating, about 93% of what we convey, intentionally or not, is non-verbal. It’s very engaging to watch, and I’ll tell you why:

The tension in every scene is organic, as even the most minor things can draw the creatures to the family. Regan is particularly at risk because she can’t hear her own noises, let alone those of the approaching aliens. A toy falling off of a shelf could result in an attack, so the father, played by Krasinski, is almost constantly alert, trying to keep his children out of danger. They can’t even eat with silverware anymore, out of fear that the clinking could attract attention.

The setup and other little details in the beginning are given to viewers though visuals; newspapers, scribbled notes, actions, etc. The film requires the audience to pay attention and deduce things on their own; what does this information mean for the characters in the moment, and what does it mean for them in the long run? Even small things like what the kids have replaced their original Monopoly tokens with shows you how fearful and devoted to safety they are. As always, some things are up to your individual interpretation, but the story is by no means unclear as it unfolds.

The characters are likeable. That seems like a weird compliment, I’m sure, but you would be surprised how many horror films within the last decade have boiled down to “stupid, rude teenagers or twenty-somethings go somewhere secluded to party and something comes after them.” Despite speaking very little, the actors conveys a lot of emotion with facial expressions, body language, touch, and proximity. Krasinksi is particularly good at this; it’s what made him a fan favorite on The Office.

 

This is not to say that the characters have no negative traits. They are just very sympathetic, portrayed in a very human and understandable way. It is easy to believe that they would feel or react the way that they do, especially for the kids. They are clearly mature for their age, and even more for this apocalyptic situation, but not so mature that they understand and support all of their parents’ choices. Everyone has a hang-up of some sort, just like in real life.

The Abbott family is not quiet Spielberg-ian, but I like them and want to see them survive, which I would argue is damn near crucial in a good horror film.

Also, it’s interesting to me that John Krasinski and Emily Blunt are actually husband and wife. They have really good chemistry onscreen, so their married life must be pretty good as well. I guess if you’re not an actor though, it’s probably not a good idea to cast family members in leading roles. Right, Kevin Sorbo?

And speaking of “Christian films”, there is at least one religious theme that gets brought up in A Quiet Place. It seems to be very pro-life, but it’s not explicit or in-your-face-preachy about it. That’s exactly what I want from a movie: subtlety. Nuance. Almost a suggestion, but it makes you think, rather than just shouting down opposing opinions and definitively saying that yours is “right.” Again, looking at you, Kevin Sorbo and Sean Hannity. Let There Be Light was pure, propagandistic crap, and I say that as a self-proclaimed Christian, your target demographic.

But I digress. That film was unintentionally horrifying.

 

A Quiet Place is a thrill in theatres. It left me wanting more when it was over, but better that than wanting less. Just make sure you find a quiet place to watch it. Talking is super disruptive and annoying during a movie like this.

 

8/10

*Note: None of the images used in this post belong to me.

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