Film Review: Aquaman

January 21, 2019 Leave a comment

Aquaman (2018; Directed by James Wan)

Aquaman represents a golden opportunity to reconsider and discard an unfortunate habit of critical description whose demise is desirable. In an overdue gesture of belated enlightened sensitivity to those pervasive stigmas around mental illness that corporate-marketed public awareness campaigns tell me must be confronted and defeated (especially if it means larger quarterly profit margins in the process), I shall never again describe a movie with particular silly or unpredictable elements as crazy, nuts, unhinged, bonkers, or insane. Movies cannot be mentally ill, and it’s insensitive and even a little mean to real people struggling with those sort of conditions to suggest that a movie is mentally ill just because, oh, I don’t know, it happens to feature an octopus playing the bongos.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself for becoming woke on this point nor to suggest that this self-discipline represents any sort of sacrifice, but its timing, admittedly, is not auspicious. Giving up on the descriptive crutch of calling a movie insane just as one sits down to write about Aquaman is a bit like giving up alcohol before a comprehensive Scottish whiskey distillery tour. What else is one to do without it, after all? To reach for more neutral adjectives, then: James Wan’s Aquaman is wild, goofy, ridiculous, and ambitiously messy. It’s bad in the ways that every DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entry has been bad (with the blessed exception of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman): excruciating and unrevealing dialogue, overwrought and dull mythological exposition, stunted thematic and character development, insensible casting, stiff performances, and saturating CG action scenes with gigantic scale but zero real emotional stakes.

But unlike the leaden bores of Zack Snyder’s Superman-centred films (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Justice League), Aquaman is just woolly enough to manage to be fun, despite the flaws of its construction as cinema. A defining feature of the Snyderverse movies is that they really, deeply hate comic books, but Wan’s Aquaman (Snyder and his wife Deborah are executive producers on it) just loves comic books to bits, in all of their sophomoric, splashy, stilted, frothy, multicoloured glory. It would be wise to cultivate that sort of fondness for superhero comics at their pulpiest and most ludicrous if you’re going to make a movie about a goofball trident-wielding Prince of Atlantis, and Wan (best known before this for helming horror potboilers and the seventh Fast & Furious flick) gleefully does.

It also helps to have Jason Momoa starring as the titular hero of a movie given to such a tone. An impressively-proportioned actor of limited range but almost boundless infectious charisma who just seems chuffed to bits to be doing anything at all, at any time, really, Momoa is just unorthodox enough as a movie star – the long hair and goatee, the tattoos, the Native Hawaiian ancestry, the casual, un-self-conscious bro-ish ease – to be a proper fit as a superhero who, despite the screenplay’s many safe-minded attempts to skew his narrative towards convention, is inherently unorthodox in comparison to other genre figures.

Aquaman, whose real name is Arthur Curry, is a young man caught between two worlds, the son of a humble Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the runaway Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). The lighthouse keeper finds the queen on the rocks one stormy night and nurses her back to health, and the unlikely couple fall in love, sharing a few blissful years and bringing forth Arthur before Atlantean soldiers arrive to bundle her back to her betrothed Atlantean king beneath the waves. She fends off these troops (in the first and most memorable of the movie’s many, many fight scenes, perhaps made all the better by incongruously featuring Nicole freakin’ Kidman kicking undersea grunt ass), but realizes that she must return to Atlantis to keep her landlubber family safe. She promises to come back to them, but Arthur understands through his contact with Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a trusted advisor to Atlantis’ rulers who secretly trained the boy in the use of his Atlantean powers and combat techniques, that she was later executed for the treachery of bearing him as her son.

Arthur nurses this hurt at home in his Maine coastal town (where they apparently have Maori lighthouse keepers now; a brave new world), taking care of his dad but occasionally venturing out into the world’s oceans to superhero it up in a seemingly random manner. We see one such venture at the movie’s start, as Arthur foils the pirating of a Russian submarine by a strike force led by a father-son commando duo (Michael Beach and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but in the process makes a revenge-minded archenemy in the form of Abdul-Mateen’s David Kane, nicknamed Black Manta. Soon after, Arthur is sought out by undersea warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who demands that he claim his birthright to the throne of Atlantis in order to prevent his currently-ruling half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) from forcibly unifying the kingdoms of the seas, declaring himself Ocean Master, and launching an apocalyptic war against the surface world in retaliation for decades of pollution and sealife hunting.

This is already pretty needlessly complicated, but Aquaman‘s plot only gets more so. Intricate Atlantean power politics and militaristic combat traditions are broken up with smoothly-transitioned flashbacks to Arthur’s training by Vulko, to Atlantis’ glorious history, and to heavy-handed but quickly-forgotten environmentalist criticisms of industrial-capitalist civilization’s awful damage to the oceans of the world and the preponderence of life that dwells in them. Meanwhile, Arthur and Mera travel to the sandy Sahara and to sparkling Sicily and to the deepest trench in the ocean on a video-game quest for various magical objects, namely the Trident of Atlan which when wielded by the one true king, etc., so on, you know the rest if you’ve read Arthurian legends or even seen the first Thor movie. They also, of course, fall in love along the way, which is a bit awkward seeing how Mera is betrothed to Orm and all, and even more awkward because they basically have no spark together at all, to be honest (Heard is kind of a blank, but her red wig looks great and that’s not faint praise because wigs are hard).

A big deal is made in the script how Arthur’s half-caste identity makes him an ideal King of Atlantis, and how he must be proven worthy before he can grasp the golden Trident. Aquaman, though, doesn’t show any sort of growth or transformation in Arthur Curry, though he broods on the meaning of mercy after his lack thereof later nearly gets him killed at the hands of the vengeful Manta. He comes into his own because the movie needs him to, and not for any other motivated reason. There are plenty of important personal connections to drive him: to his father, to his mother, to Mera, even to Orm. They’re all in the movie but they aren’t linked, aren’t used to build any impact or thematic or character crescendo. This is a common DCEU problem, and Aquaman does not solve it.

What it does solve is the creeping joylessness of DCEU movies. Aquaman is a wild time, its action scenes just massive and layered and richly imagined enough to work, from Arthur’s sub fight to his gladiatorial combat with Orm to a chase and fight in a sun-dappled Sicilian hill town between Arthur and Manta, Mera and Atlantean guards to the epically detailed climactic undersea battle sequence. The design and CG work on the underwater world of Atlantis and of its allies and rivals is tremendous and comprehensive, and Wan doesn’t skimp on giving his audience long, lavish views of its hugely expensive splendour. You could say that Aquaman is not only structured like a video game and feels like a video game, but looks like one too, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a damned cool-looking video game that you sure as hell want to play.

None of this, however, quite gets at how fundamentally, astronomically weird Aquaman is. This is a movie in which Jason Momoa has a “shining” telepathic moment with a whale. This is a movie that casts arthouse mainstays Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, and Patrick Wilson as sub-marine aristocrats in shiny fish-scale armour. This is a movie with Dolph Lundgren riding a giant seahorse. This is a movie whose secondary villain, despite being named after a ray, dons a black-painted suit with a wasp-head helmet that shoots plasma rays out of its red eyes. This is a movie whose score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, includes not only cornball hopscotch-strings cues during one of Momoa and Heard’s strained moments of romantic-comedic relief, but also an absolutely literal non-ironic “dun-dun-dun!” sting phrase after Wilson’s first utterance of the words “Ocean Master” (the funniest moment in the movie, including all of its intentional jokes). This is a movie that uses the twinkly bits of Sigur Rós’ powerful “Saeglopur”, but not the mighty, dynamic swirls of deep sound of its extended climax, and puts it in entirely the wrong place in the film. This is a movie with a goat reaction shot. This is a movie with a titanic crab-kaiju leviathan creature voiced by Julie Andrews. I’m no longer allowed to say this movie is insane, but good gravy, is it ever way, way out there.

Maybe, though, that’s why it mostly works. Aquaman is horribly flawed and insufficient in dozens of ways, and yet it still might be the second best post-Christopher-Nolan DC superhero movie after Wonder Woman (which, admittedly, is not saying much). Aquaman leans into the nonsensical frippery of its comic-book source, its pop-history synthesis of classical mythology and Arthurian legend and marine biology, its fevered imaginative urge to show us strange and fanciful shit that we’ve never seen before. Is Aquaman, properly speaking, a good movie? Of course not. Will you have a ball watching it? Can’t say that you won’t.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Outlaw King

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment

Outlaw King (2018; Directed by David Mackenzie)

It’s fascinating to watch Scottish director David Mackenzie’s earthily epic narrative telling of the initial stages of early-14th-century Scottish monarch Robert the Bruce’s largely successful wars of resistance and independence against the English crown in comparative contrast with its much more famous historical counterpart, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning biographical epic of contemporaneous Scottish rebel warrior William Wallace, Braveheart. Outlaw King operates partly as a parallel story to Braveheart: Wallace is mentioned a few times in the first act, and his execution by the English is constructed (somewhat inaccurately) as an impetus for the Bruce’s own rising, so that if one was so inclined it would not be difficult to imagine that previous narrative of medieval Scottish-English warfare taking place somewhere just out of frame.

This makes Outlaw King a sequel of sorts to Braveheart, a sequel-in-spirit more than an intentional continuation. But to a greater extent, it functions as a corrective text, setting straight the story that Mel Gibson turned into such a self-serving Hollywoodized myth in 1995. Robert the Bruce was made an equivocating fence-sitter in Braveheart, whose doubting-Peter unwillingness to commit to Wallace’s rebellion cost Gibson’s mud-splattered paladin of freedom his life in a Christ-like sacrifice (Gibson has always loved those, which is why he literally filmed one a few years later). History tells us, of course, that despite swearing fealty to the English Crown and pledging not to take arms against it, Robert did eventually commit and accomplished what Wallace could not: Scottish independence from England, maintained by his descendants for centuries. He was the one actually called “Braveheart”, not Wallace; after his death, his heart was transported at his request to Southern Spain on Crusade by his right-hand man Sir James Douglas and, according to romantic poetry sources at least, tossed symbolically into the midst of battle against the Moors. But he did what he did as a more complex, compromised, and flawed figure than Wallace, or at least than Gibson’s absurdly lionized version of Wallace.

This complicated antihero profile (emphasized by the title card of Mackenzie’s film, which inserts a slash between “outlaw” and “king” to gesture at Robert’s dualized nature) marks Outlaw King‘s Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, as a cultural figure of the moment, with all the good and bad associations that entails. In retrospect, Braveheart was the last gasp of a more traditional and soon-to-expire version of Hollywood historical fiction that almost entirely jettisoned the history for the fiction (the film’s depiction of belted plaid kilts in medieval Scotland remains the gold standard for period anachronism onscreen, for my money). Outlaw King is the reflection of the same sort of cultural view of the Middle Ages that Braveheart trafficked in, one characterized by violence, dirt-bound poverty, ritualized superstition, and brutality par excellence, what Umberto Eco classified as “Barbaric Age” medievalism and what Shiloh Carroll has called (largely in reference to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its hit companion TV series Game of Thrones) “grimdark” medievalism. This more grim and realistic depiction of the medieval era (where “realism” generally means plenty of mud) is offered as an overcompensatory corrective to the colourful, scrubbed-up, ren-faire version of the chivalric Middle Ages derived from medieval romance poetry, which influenced films set in Medieval Europe for a long time; look at the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, for example, which does not at all seem to be in the same contiguous reality as a much later medieval film like Outlaw King.

Although possessed of a greater level of historical fidelity than Braveheart, Outlaw King still understands the Middle Ages, or at least the warfare in their midst over political power and dynastic succession carried out by feudal society’s war-drilled aristocrats, as a consistently dirty and bloody affair, with none of the trade and agriculture and prosperous plenty and feast-day revelry that characterized much of pre-Black Death High Medieval Europe. To be frank, though, if the barbaric terms of grimdark medievalism did actually apply anywhere on the continent in that era, it was surely in Scotland, with its almost constant warfare both intercenine and inter-state, the latter mostly with the England of King Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots for his forceful victories over and pitiless treatment of his country’s northern neighbours.

Outlaw King‘s avatar of that brutal reality is not Edward I (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones plays him here as a rusting iron fist) or even his more weak-willed and thus more desperately cruel son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), later Edward II. No, the grimdark ambassador is clearly Robert the Bruce’s lieutenant Sir James Douglas, played by a quite nearly feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a canny killer of enemies, a prolific fornicator, and a vicious berserker on the battlefield. Outlaw King‘s battles and skirmishes and slayings are prodigiously gory, full of mutilated bodies and bursts of red mist, and Taylor-Johnson’s the Black Douglas is ever at its blood-pumping heart. Outlaw King includes a rendition of the infamous Douglas Larder episode of the Wars of Scottish Independence, in which Douglas and his men-at-arms infiltrated his home seat of Douglas Castle and ruthless assaulted the English garrison that holds it, ambushing and slaying men as they prayed in the chapel (as an applicable side note, James Douglas’ great-great grandsons, the elder of them the 6th Earl of Douglas, were the fatal targets of the infamous “Black Dinner”, the model for George R.R. Martin’s centerpiece of grimdark medieval violence in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Red Wedding).

But Outlaw King is, after all, about the outlaw king, Robert the Bruce. Played by Pine (surely now established as the most able and gravitas-ready of the Chrises) as a plain, pragmatic, and conflicted moral man who leads more by example than by inspiration. He dutifully lugs his taxes to the English king’s agents but is persuaded to embrace rebellion by a popular riot at the display of the executed William Wallace’s severed arm. He is gentle and loving with his daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) and gives space to his intelligent and strong-willed arranged bride, Irish aristocrat Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), until she is ready to love him and come to his bed. He is kind and familiar with servants. He is thoughtful and sensitive but determined in adversity, and not boastful in victory. On the cusp of the turning-point Battle of Loundon Hill which forms the film’s climax, he digs strategic ditches alongside his men, and instead of full-lunged exhortations about freedom, his pre-battle pep talk to his troops eschews all the standard appeals to personal and ideological motivating factors in favour of bloody-minded directness: you’re here, now fight and fight hard.

Though still an idealized and glorified figure in many ways, the earthbound directness of Pine’s Robert the Bruce defines the film around him. This is a tremendously pragmatically-minded film, primarily concerned with the grim acceptance of unwavering necessity of action compelled by events, history as action and reaction. When Robert commits his most antihero of acts, the sudden, shocking stabbing of his rival John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) at the altar of a church where they were meeting under supposed truce, this cold-blooded murder is couched as being a snap decision of necessity driven by Comyn’s explicit statement of his intent to reveal Robert’s incipient disloyalty to the English authorities. Although the Bruce claims the mandate of the Scottish people upon his coronation, his rebellion against the English is not defined by fidelity to high ideals but by basic hardscrabble survival. Director David Mackenzie gained wider critical notice with 2016’s Hell or High Water (also starring Pine), a film about men driven to outlaw extremes by moral objections to wider injustice. Outlaw King doesn’t universalize Robert the Bruce’s struggle for an independent Scottish throne and, despite personal grievances between him and the English leaders, doesn’t turn it into a vendetta either. The real Robert the Bruce was ambitious and power-hungry, and Pine’s version isn’t not like that, though not too openly.

Whatever medieval historians might think of the species of social and military realism represented by movies like Outlaw King, there’s something convincing in its understanding of this particular conflict later enshrined as a national struggle as a nasty species of rural gang scuffle, a glorified street battle with swords and mail and lances and horses. It’s hardly a great film despite its handsome production and firm performances, but Outlaw King is a step away from the chest-beating of Braveheart and just maybe, in spite of its dominant grimness, towards a more honest and nuanced representation of the Middle Ages on the big screen.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: A Quiet Place

January 17, 2019 Leave a comment

A Quiet Place (2018; Directed by John Krasinski)

A family-under-siege horror-thriller, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place pits a familial unit of savvy survivalists against sharp-eared monsters that pounce and kill viciously at the smallest sound and have thus devastated human civilization. This simple and potent premise provides ample fodder for a series of taut and sometimes ingenious sequences of tension and nervous peril, as one might reasonably expect from the genre. But it also fuels clever “what if?” world-building, canny visual storytelling, and themes of nuclear-family unity, sacrifice, and reproductive determination that might have been dubbed “conservative values” in some halcyon time before that political/cultural movement’s collective embrace of the glaring embodiment of everything they were supposed to be fighting against exposed the blinding hypocrisy at the heart of that buzz phrase.

A Quiet Place is mostly but not entirely wordless, in light of the predicament facing the family of characters that feature in it. Though some words are mouthed and full-volume speech enabled by masking sounds like a cascading waterfall, most of the information in the film is communicated either visually or through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), which the Abbott family is fortunate enough to know in this situation due to their teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) being congenitally deaf. Although the ASL gestures were subtitled upon the film’s theatrical release, the version I streamed did not have any, but very little information was lost without them. For those familiar with ASL, A Quiet Place must be especially rewarding, like silent films would have been to expert lip readers: full of nuance and peculiarities of expression (much of which was developed for the film by Simmonds, who is herself hearing-impaired and fluent in ASL) that would not be evident to non-ASL-sign-speakers.

Holed up in their farmhouse and rural environs, the Abbotts maintain some measure of semi-normality amidst elaborately cautious practices that keep the sounds that the living of their lives generate to an absolute minimum to avoid attracting the blind but acutely-hearing monsters that dwell in their vicinity. Father Lee (Krasinski) has an engineering/techie background, and spends his time scanning shortwave radio for morse-code word of other survivors, maintaining sophisticated early-warning systems and crisis failsafes, fashioning cochlear implants for Regan (which will prove important in ways he could not have imagined), and teaching his jumpy son Marcus (Noah Jupe) rules and practices of survival, life, and manhood. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-life wife too) cooks dinner in an oven in the floorboards, quietly does laundry, maintains the family medical supplies (she was once a doctor), gives Marcus a measure of school-like education, and prepares for the arrival of the child that she carries inside her and will soon deliver into a dangerous milieu that will instantly and aggressively seek to strangle its cries. Regan acts out like a rebellious teenager whose angst is compounded by her inability to throw vocal tantrums and slam doors, but she is also just more haunted and self-flagellatory than the others about the trauma that looms large in the family’s past and that they blame themselves for in their own ways: the loss of their youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) to a monster, as depicted in the film’s opening sequence.

The Abbotts move around barefoot along marked paths – by sand outdoors, by paint on the creaky wood-floored farmhouse – to avoid making noise, have strung lightbulb chains around the surrounding fields that turn from white to red by the flick of a switch if danger is near, and even play Monopoly with cloth boardgame pieces to dampen even the slightest sound. But circumstances will nonetheless conspire to alert the creatures to their presence despite all of their care: namely Evelyn’s inconveniently-timed labour contractions and a pesky nail on the basement stairs.

A Quiet Place is an expert example of a bottled thriller, surprisingly so given that it’s in the hands of genre neophyte and previously undistinguished director Krasinski. He benefits greatly from the intelligent foundations provided by the script by Brian Woods and Scott Beck (which Krasinski rewrote), and even more from Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and Blunt’s showcase performance mixing petrification with dogged, competent determination (she was nominated for that ultimate horror-acting honour, the MTV Movie Award for Most Frightened Performance, formerly and wonderfully known as Best Scared-as-Shit Performance; MTV’s cultural relevance has dwindled away to next to nothing over the past decade, but their shamelessly goofball movie awards will always be a highlight of the entertainment calendar). Her final moment in the film’s closing shot is pure, triumphant badassery. Fuck ’em up, Mary Poppins.

Truly, though, A Quiet Place is a wonder of sound design, which Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (an Oscar winner for the sound on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong) use dynamically and keenly to build tension, reveal character perspective, and amplify moments of terror and catharsis, pressure and release. The muffled sounds of the Abbotts’ movements demonstrates their tiptoeing existence; the total silence of deaf Regan’s perception places the audience into her head and sensory world; the emergence of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” when Evelyn shares her earbud and a slow dance with Lee is a comforting embrace of sonics in a sometimes unsettling dome of quiet. The harsh sharpness of loud, sudden sonic intrusions into the Abbott’s secure soundproofing of their lives instantly communicates the immediate danger those sounds represent, the catastrophe they portend.

A Quiet Place mostly presents as a straightforward and engaging potboiler, but political implications are never too far away. Krasinski himself (a Democratic Party donor) conceived of the premise as a metaphor of sorts for the importance of moral acts in the face of persistent horrors and injustices in America’s Age of Trump, an argument against keeping your head down and hoping merely to survive the chaos around you. There is a certain resonance to this effect in A Quiet Place, an echo of our unpredictable and often dangerous reality that compels silent compliance and avoidance of drawing notice rather than confronting the horrors that lurk in the margins, always waiting to pounce on the vulnerable.

But A Quiet Place is hard to pigeonhole politically and likewise features definite conservative themes. Perhaps due to his B-level film career trajectory or perhaps due to certain old-fashioned centrist ideological convictions, Krasinski has sometimes gravitated towards nominally right-wing or at least more traditionally-themed productions: romantic comedies, family dramas, even a pulpy, militaristic dramatization of the 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya (which became a cause célèbre on the conspiracy-minded, rabidly anti-Clinton American Right) that was directed by glistening pop-art USA-chant propagandist Michael Bay (one of A Quiet Place‘s producers). A Quiet Place is certainly no MAGA affair, but it does focus on a white rural nuclear family with demonstrated religious faith, gestures at traditional monastic asceticism (they are surnamed the Abbotts, after all), and even nods at pro-life sentiments with Evelyn’s pregnancy and labour in spite of the extremely obvious dangers that a wailing infant presents in a situation where any sound summons instant-eviscerating hunters.

Like a lot of genre films that present building, consecutive scenarios of frightening peril, A Quiet Place features at least a half dozen moments that could be nitpicked. “Why are you doing that?” and “That is NOT a good idea” escapes the mouths of the audience as surely as nervous gasps or constricted breaths, no doubt. But these moments of perceived, detached enlightened perspective (we know what to do even if the characters don’t) are part of the fun of horror-thrillers like A Quiet Place, too, especially when they are as well-conceived and executed as this movie ultimately is.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Incredibles 2

January 4, 2019 Leave a comment

The Incredibles 2 (2018; Directed by Brad Bird)

14 years may have passed in our world since the release of Brad Bird’s expert Pixar-produced animated superhero film The Incredibles, but for the titular family of semi-secret Supers (as superheroes are known in this world), not even five minutes have elapsed. The Incredibles 2 picks up exactly where the first film left off, as the Parrs suit up to battle the massive burrowing machines of the villainous Underminer (voiced by Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger) which threaten their city of Metroville. But the film also picks up on other teased threads at the conclusion of that much-praised prior installment: awkward eldest daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) getting up the nerve to ask out her classmate Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird), the unpredictably emerging superpowers of baby boy Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and the passage of laws outlawing Supers from using their powers openly, for the safety of society.

The confrontation with the Underminer does not exactly go swimmingly, with more than a little architectural collateral damage resulting despite the best efforts of matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet and her speedster brother Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and ice-blasting family friend Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The mole-ish villain also manages to escape after a fight with super-strong patriarch Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). The whole costly affair simply confirms for government officials and law enforcement that Supers must remain illegal, lest further catastrophes follow.

But in its aftermath, the Parrs are approached by corporate telecommunications heirs and tycoon siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who in tribute to their late superhero-supporting father want to fit the generally less-destructive Elastigirl (studies have been done and data compiled to support that conclusion, to Bob’s ego-disappointment) with a body-camera and record her heroic acts as part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate the image of Supers and get them legalized again. In an inversion of The Incredibles, then, Helen goes out to recapture her youth and don the supersuit while Bob holds down the fort in their well-appointed DevTech-provided home (only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s flashy Mid-Century futurist design). They each face challenges, Helen from a mind-hypnotizing terrorist called the Screenslaver who may be more than he seems to be, and Bob from Violet’s boy problems, Dash’s math homework, and Jack-Jack’s barely-manageable explosion of super-abilities.

Like its predecessor, The Incredibles 2 builds both its conflict and its humour on this contrast of the concerns of domestic family life with the elaborate Super fantasies of its action sequences. Conceived and executed by the masterful Brad Bird, these latter scenes are of course prodigiously exciting (heightened immensely by Michael Giacchino’s pulse-quickening Bond-esque score), dense with furiously clever details and gags; the focus on Elastigirl and her far more, well, elastic abilities jacks up the speed and dynamism, especially during a motorbike pursuit of a runaway monorail. The portal-opening powers of a supporting Super (and nervous Elastigirl fangirl) named Voyd (Sophia Bush) also open up possibilities of movement and change that Bird takes full advantage of during the climactic sequence on a runaway yacht.

That said, the best action scene (certainly the funniest, at least) in The Incredibles 2 might well be Jack-Jack’s running battle in the family’s backyard with a feisty raccoon. Jack-Jack’s emerging powers also draw in one of the first film’s truest oddball delights, the inspired, eccentric fashion designer to Supers Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself), who babysits him and fashions a suit and supporting tech to allow the increasingly harried Bob to handle his little ball of (sometimes quite literal) explosiveness. One is left feeling that there is too little of Edna Mode, but whether the character would work so well in larger doses is debatable.

Other elements of The Incredibles 2 are worthy of positive note. There are numerous fine voice performance moments, not only from the long-underrated Hunter as the to-the-forefront Helen, but also from the historian and public radio broadcaster Vowell‘s distinctive and more-layered work with Violet to Nelson’s hilarious insomniac readings of baby-calming talk to Isabella Rossellini as a Supers-friendly ambassador. Keener is always good, but especially notable is Bob Odenkirk as her character’s sales-pitching brother, his persuasion-talking gestures and mannerisms (so familiar to fans of his work as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) so lovingly and accurately rendered into CG animation by the world-class Pixar animators.

Still, despite its copious entertainments and fine craftsmanship displaying the technological advancement in computer animation since 2004’s The Incredibles, one is left feeling that this sequel is a lesser product in comparison to that species of modern classic. The Incredibles rendered the Parrs’ relatable human anxieties into their thematic struggle with a fanboy-turned-resentful-supervillain and expanded those ideas into larger political questions (which some critics read as reflecting Nietzschean principles or even Randian Objectivism) about the place of the individual in relation to society. The Incredibles 2‘s political ideas are instead expressed most notably in a single soapbox-ascending dinner table argument between Bob and Helen: should they teach their kids that they ought to obey laws, no matter how unjust they may find them to be, or to resist and even break those laws if they think it right to do so?

If this is Bird’s core political dilemma this time around, however, it is not productively or effectively incorporated into the film’s narrative or thematic development. Supers are outlawed, but Elastigirl’s heroism slowly wears down public opinion until it comes to support repeal of their ban, with a twist in the villainous plot to uphold that ban to be overcome by family superpower collaboration. Bird stabs fitfully in other directions, too, as Helen and Evelyn discuss the glass ceilings of sexism in their respective professions. Most egregiously out-of-touch on Bird’s part is a rant from the Screenslaver villain (ultimately a fake-out figure, but I shan’t go and spoil) about our contemporary society’s hypnotic enslavement to digital screens, which comes across as not only a bit of a fuddy-duddy old man complaint but also a fairly hypocritical one coming from a crafter of intelligently-crafted but fundamentally diversionary entertainment that will, by design, itself play on millions of those bemoaned screens.

The Incredibles 2 is supremely, even occasionally transcendentally, diversionary, but unlike its predecessor never really rises above that level. Following a commercial and artistic dip in Tomorrowland, Brad Bird returns to the totalizing visual and motion control of animation, and The Incredibles 2 is frequently an impressive demonstration of his confident and sometimes even audacious mastery of that medium. But Tomorrowland also displayed a grandstanding pedantry that wore thin very quickly and bogged down Bird’s clockwork inventiveness and big-dreamer optimism. The Incredibles 2 overcompensates on the ideas score, megaphoning a political argument or two but consigning the content of those arguments to background colour rather than enfolding them productively into the story’s core conflicts. This is quite often an extremely fun and unquestionably well-made movie, but recent, real blockbuster high-points (especially in the artistically expanding superhero genre) are more adept at trojan-horsing more resonant ideological and emotional concepts into that carnival-ride package. The Incredibles 2 is set in a fashionably old-fashioned fantasy world, but it’s also subtly old-fashioned in relation to our real world, and it shows.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2018

January 1, 2019 Leave a comment

The best films of 2018 grappled with the unsettling valences of an uncertain and sometimes hostile world, and found empathy, solidarity, progress, and tempered hope in cinematic art. The pinnacle highlights of the filmic year are a varied bunch, reflecting majoritarian trends in big-budget blockbusters and arthouse film as well as singular curios.

The new African-American film renaissance continued and strengthened in breadth and commercial and artistic power this year, following from 2017’s Best Picture Moonlight and surprise hit (and my top film of that year) Get Out. The year’s highest-grossing film in the U.S. and Canada (and second highest-grossing worldwide) was written and directed by an African-American, featured an almost exclusively African-American cast, and thought compellingly about contemporary and historical issues facing black people globally. It is hardly alone on this list, either, with an enervating animated superhero movie and a hyper-inventive, politically-conscious comedic debut joining it (to say nothing of other important African-American films released this year, like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, to name just a couple).

Superhero movies continued to dominate the box office and the Hollywood release schedule, but these films continued to expand in new creative directions that portended a brighter future for an oft-artistically-maligned genre. The streaming revolution proceeded apace, with format giant Netflix bypassing traditional theatres by releasing a dizzying variety of new original films, including no less than four of this year’s top ten films below. In between, there were varied glories: a fingernail-biting documentary about a death-defying rock climber; an animated picaresque about the destabilizing madness of the internet and maintaining healthy relationships in the face of separation and division; a viciously black-comic satire of screwball authoritarian power struggles; an aborted anthology western series turned into wonderful anthology western movie; a belatedly completed and released final film from one of movie history’s true masters. And standing above them all, a poetic black-and-white masterpiece about family and togetherness under pressure in 1970s Mexico City from one of our greatest living film artists. A fine year at the movies, and these are its finest moments.

 

1. Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

“[Roma] is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers. […] Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow. It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. […] For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.”

Review – 30 December 2018

 

2. Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. […] [Sorry to Bother You] is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize[…]. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it.”

Review – 1 December 2018

 

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year, and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period. […] If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as an effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike. […] This movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.”

Review – 17 December 2018

 

4. Free Solo (Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

“Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. […] Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on [free climber Alex] Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes. […] This film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.”

Review – 23 December 2018

 

5. Annihilation (Directed by Alex Garland)

“Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation […] picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. […] Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence. […] What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty.”

Review – 20 October 2018

 

6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

“The Coen Brothers’ Netflix streaming-series-turned-anthology-film is at once a deconstruction of the Hollywood western and a sincere homage to the genre, all while remaining indelibly and profoundly Coens. […] These vignettes range from wacky send-ups of generic tropes to exquisitely-wrought parables of human want and drive to wordy chamber pieces to cause-and-effect escalations with tragic dimensions. But they always retain an internal logic of momentum and direction, a force and counter-force progression of choices and events unmoored from moral consequences and judgements of cosmic justice; indeed, they often brazenly thumb their collective noses at the sense of a moral order. […] They are all entertaining, involving, amusing, or moving in some way or other; we as viewers are always engaged and trusted, never condescended to but forever respected and given space to consider, to interpret, maybe to understand.”

Review – 23 November 2018

 

7. Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

“The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s […] an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America. […] Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s).”

Review – 18 February 2018

 

8. The Other Side of the Wind (Directed by Orson Welles)

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. […] The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. […] This film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success.”

Review – 26 December 2018

 

9. The Death of Stalin (Directed by Armando Iannucci)

“Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.”

Review – 5 December 2018

 

10. Ralph Breaks the Internet (Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

“[Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s] surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. […] Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.”

Review – 28 December 2018

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Roma

December 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Roma (2018; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

What is film for? For Academy Award-winning Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, it is a medium for complete sensory immersion, a complex machine for empathy, an ever-unspooling canvas for galvanizing, soul-shaking images. This is the form that the extraordinary, semi-autobiographical Roma takes, a technical wonder and a moving narrative of pain and healing, loss and love, confusion and despair and chaos and still silence (the kind that can be comforting, unsettling, terrifying, or all three at once). It is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers.

Shot in stunningly beautiful and tonally communicative black and white (Cuarón himself is the cinematographer), Roma is a slice-of-life story about Cleo (Yalitzia Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood at the start of the 1970s. Cleo witnesses the quotidian struggles of the family that employs and loves her, and suffers her own tribulations and small joys alongside them. She watches as the family’s medical doctor patriarch (Fernando Gradiaga) leaves his wife (Marina de Tavira) and four children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta), joins the remaining family unit on vacations, and deals with her own crisis as an unplanned pregnancy coincides with the infamous El Halconazo (a.k.a. the Corpus Christi Massacre) of June 1971.

Roma is named for the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in which the family’s home is situated, but the tentative cinephile can’t help but speculate that the title might also nod to Federico Fellini’s 1972 film also called Roma. Cuarón isn’t quite one for Fellini’s Grand Guignol carnivalesque flair, but both the contemporaneous era and the aesthetic voyeurism of his camera lingering over tableaux of memory-soaked street and domestic settings suggests that Fellini’s work is intended as a reference point of artistic context. Roma is also largely constructed of Cuarón’s trademarked long takes, but the sequences of single-take cinematic bravado in Children of Men or Y Tu Mamá También or Gravity are here imbued with organic warmth and seemingly improvised (though no doubt minutely choreographed) naturalism.

Quiet interiors, bustling streetscapes, lively celebrations, buzzing countrysides and beaches all ache with visual poetry, given a varnish of historical shimmer by Cuarón’s own monochrome cinematography and his fundamental technique of foreground/background contrast. The director/DoP demonstrates with stunning simplicity how gorgeous and varied his colourless palate can be in the film’s first sustained shot during the opening credits: a fixed close-up of floor tiles in different grades of grey develops to include the reflection of a skylight in the puddle of water, undulating mop-pushed soap suds, and even the silhouette of a passing airplane. Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow.

It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. When oft-absent father Antonio returns home, his eager family must wait while he parks his too-big Ford Galaxie with exacting precision in the house’s carport; Cuarón shoots this everyday task with quick-cutting tension and humming sound to establish a picture of a man who cares deeply about things other than his loved ones. When Antonio leaves on another claimed work trip, his wife Sofia watches him drive away from their home (for the last time, as it turns out) as a cacophonous brass band marches disruptively past her on the street. A climactic moment of danger on a beach is teased through childish imaginative patter, and the potential fatal enormity of the event is imparted by the huge, flattening sound of the crashing ocean waves.

Film history and intertextuality, too, is employed by Cuarón in telling his story and giving it emotional contour. Cleo tells her martial arts enthusiast boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that she is pregnant by him in the back row of a movie theatre showing a screwy German war comedy; when he leaves, ostensibly to use the bathroom, the finality of his departure from her life (though they have two later meetings of a far more terse nature) is suggested by a fighter plane plunging through the sky on the movie screen. The family later attends another movie, 1969’s Marooned (which Cuarón has spoken about watching obsessively as a child, and an obvious influence on Gravity), and that film’s shots of astronauts adrift in the cold vastness of space approximates the existential uncertainty felt by Cleo as a future single mother and by the family in the absence of their father figure. Cuarón even references his own past work, namely a moment of both underlining and predicting during the El Halconazo sequence that recreates the imagery of maternal mourning of a dead, beloved son of Michelangelo’s La Pietà, much like a scene in Children of Men does.

This species of imaginative travel, for Alfonso Cuarón in Roma as much as (if not more than) anywhere else in his distinguished career, is what film is for. Critics toss terms of praise at any number of overwrought cinematic fantasies like “sweeps you up” and “transports you”, but Roma really does these things, only in a context of heightened realist fidelity. You are there in Mexico City in 1971, tracking past truckloads of bored riot cops ordered to sit on their hands and let paramilitary strike squads murder leftist protestors. You are there at an opulent hacienda haunted by the mounted heads of dead animals on New Year’s Eve, watching party guests and their children hurl buckets of water at a small forest fire while a costumed monster remove his false head and sings a mournful song (a moment of Bergman-esque art-film panache). And above all, you are there seeing the world through the eyes of a meek, ordinary housekeeper, the drudgery of her days but the love and the hurt of them, too. For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

December 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018; Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

When we last saw that big lovable lug Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) six years ago, he seemed to have found his place in the world at last. Once a stereotyped and excluded building-smashing arcade game villain, Ralph earned the respect of his coded-as-good peers in his home game of Fix-It Felix Jr. and across the rest of Litwak’s Arcade by heroic and selflessly helping another pariah, the cutesy but spunky Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), overcome a recurring nervous glitch and usurping monarch to regain her rightful place as the top performer in the candy-themed racing game Sugar Rush. Now Ralph and Vanellope are best friends, spending their off-hours together in Game Central Station, the main commuting hub of the arcade for video-game characters, sipping root beer in the bar from Tapper and watching the sun come up through the plug holes of their familiar power-bar terminal.

Ralph is loyal and big-hearted but a bit simple, so the repetition of life in the arcade suits him more than it does the bright, restless, and competitive Vanellope. When she expresses boredom at the prospect of racing along the same three track in Sugar Rush indefinitely, Ralph comes to her aid by punching a new course through the game’s saccharine landscape. Vanellope is thrilled at the new challenge, but her freewheeling navigation of Ralph’s course frustrates her human player outside in the arcade and leads to a broken part on the Sugar Rush machine that cannot be cheaply replaced. Sugar Rush is shut down, leaving Vanellope, her fellow racers, and the supporting characters in the game homeless, and Ralph feeling that he is to blame.

Moving through this surprisingly deft pixelated analogy for contemporary refugee crises (the other racer girls are adopted by Fix-It Felix Jr. and his tough-talking alien-shooting-game partner Calhoun, voiced by Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch respectively, in a parenthetical subplot consisting of a few parenting jokes), Ralph and Vanellope decide to try to save Sugar Rush by venturing through the arcade’s new Wifi router into the vast gleaming city-of-the-future of the Internet, where they hope to purchase the last available replacement steering wheel for Sugar Rush from eBay before the machine is sold off for parts and Vanellope and her fellow racers are left permanently homeless. But their quest will lead to an irrevocable change in their friendship when Vanellope comes across a tantalizing, challenging online open-world driving game called Slaughter Race and Ralph proves reluctant to let his friend follow her dreams there when they appear likely to separate her from him.

If Wreck-It Ralph peppered its narrative of outcasts overcoming exclusionary labels with vintage video game references and character cameos, then its sequel colours its story about accepting change and space in human relationships with a cascade of nods and winks to online culture, internet memes, major websites, and tech companies. The gags are imaginative and rapid-fire: web surfers are personified as squarish avatars which zip along in flying-car-like pods on information superhighways; Twitter is a twisting, towering tree forest, with thousands of tiny blue birds literally re-tweeting each other’s utterances; Instagram is envisioned as a huge art museum, with avatars gazing thoughtfully at snaps of plated food; motormouthed hustlers bustle about with their garish pop-up ads, only to be knocked away by g-man-like adblockers; down at street level is the dimly-lit, seedy Dark Web, with disreputable shops selling viruses and other not-exactly-legal goods and services are for sale; not far from there is a graveyard of past computer networking mainstays like public chatrooms and phone-line dial-up.

Some Internet locations are more detailed than others, as they play a key role in the plot. Google-esque search engine Knowmore features a professorial librarian (Alan Tudyk, who voiced a character in the first film too) who breathless attempts to autocomplete surfers’ hesitant searches. eBay is a vast series of physical auctions booths. Slaughter Race is a tough-as-nails, skull-tattoo-emblazoned, semi-post-apocalyptic urban wasteland gamescape, a Grand Theft Auto-like MMORPG presided over by master wheelwoman and gang queen Shank (Gal Gadot). Vanellope and Ralph try to earn the eBay auction payment money for the Sugar Rush part by stealing Shank’s car; they do not succeed, but the kid’s driving skills impress Shank and the unpredictable setting appeals to Vanellope, precipitating her ambition to move to the game and the pending friendship schism with a clingy Ralph.

Ralph then becomes a viral star at YouTube-like video upload site BuzzzTube with the help of Shank’s hip and savvy bud Yes (Taraji P. Henson) in an effort to raise the necessary funds to pay for their eBay bid, hoovering up heart-shaped likes with ghost-pepper challenges and photoshopped screaming goats and bee puns. But Vanellope, trawling for hits and likes for Ralph’s videos, ventures into the gigantic castle-shaped website of the film’s producing and distributing studio, Disney. In between cartoon cameos from the studio’s many properties from classic animated characters to Marvel superheroes (I Am Groot jokes, ahoy!) and a pursuit by Star Wars stormtroopers, Vanellope happens upon a dressing room full of Disney princesses (many of whom are voiced by the actresses who played them in their original films).

There follows a pretty funny and sharp critical analysis (over the first minute of the linked clip only) of the studio’s common princess tropes: “Do animals talk to you?” the princesses ask Vanellope. “Were you poisoned? Cursed? Kidnapped and enslaved? Did people assume all of your problems got solved because a big, strong man showed up?” The princesses share with Vanellope their favoured method of self-reflection and dream-fulfillment: gaze thoughtfully into a body of water (“IMPORTANT water!”) and sing about their heart’s desire. After a false start or two, Vanellope pours out her yearning to explore an exciting new game realm in a hilarious showpiece musical number, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (lyrics by Disney musical maven Alan Menken, no less!). This sequence’s humour largely stems from the incongruity of the visual and aural language of Disney Animation musical aspiration being applied to a hardcore car-battle game set in an atmosphere of gritty, lawless urban decay (dumpster fires, clouds of mace, a pigeon with one foot, a dollar store, etc.). Wreck-It Ralph showed a keener eye than its sequel for American class subtext, but this sequence at least gestures with a softened satirical glance towards the consequences of socioeconomic inequality and to its exploitative caricaturing in media like Rockstar’s GTA games.

Vanellope’s big strong man is not sufficiently supportive of her dreams, however, and Ralph’s insecure and possessive behaviour towards his friend drives Ralph Breaks the Internet to its narrative, emotional and thematic climax (the following discussion of which will spoil the rest of the film, FYI). In between its arcade-classic shout-outs and candy-coated whimsy, Wreck-It Ralph included resonant themes about the powerful and the marginalized, about the dangers of stereotypes, about sacrificing individuality for order, liberty for security, along the terms of what we call the social contract (and by “we”, I of course mean “Thomas Hobbes”). Ralph Breaks the Internet pivots with surprising emotional clarity and power to issues of psychological insecurity. Vanellope’s scrambled-code “glitch” now manifests when she feels anxious, a deft visual marker of the emotional condition.

But it’s Ralph’s masculine insecurities, his anxiety at losing his new best friend and being left alone again (understandable to an extent, given his outcast history in his game home), that predominate. It leads him to hijack Vanellope’s move to Slaughter Race with a virus named Arthur (provided to him by a Dark Web underworld blob creature given a Cockney gangster voice by Alfred Molina) that preys on and endlessly copies insecurities in programs, which first crashes Slaughter Race by replicating Vanellope’s glitch and then threatens the entirety of the Internet by producing hordes of needy, clingy Ralph clones. They swarm to topple monolithic buildings/sites like Amazon and then combine to form a King Kong-ish Big Ralph made up of Little Ralphs whose rampaging sparks a final emotional reckoning in Vanellope and Ralph’s friendship.

This surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. Although these themes and ideas are not connected directly and openly to displays of online toxic masculinity (Ralph does have a sad moment when he stumbles upon the mean comments about his BuzzzTube videos, but these are not gendered particularly) and their more broad effects, this is after all a movie with “Internet” in its title that suggests rather pointedly that poorly-coped-with male insecurity can be catastrophic at the micro and macro levels. Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.

Animated features are often manifested didactically, and cynical observers might even label them forms of ideological brainwashing of impressionable youth. However one approaches them, the best and most thought-out among them are not merely entertainment but texts of education, embedding emotional and ideological messages of worth to their young audience. Taken in this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet contains vital and potently expressed ideas about problematic behaviour in friendships and, by extension though not in this text itself about the connection between an adult man and a female child, in more adult relationships and social interactions as well.

The movie also contains many hallmarks of kid-focused entertainment: the script includes numerous re-orientating restatements of plot goals, launches with abandon into its many adventurous picaresque episodes at the expense of narrative pacing, and leaves aside or simply forgets some introduced elements. Its brand-name saturation and corporate synergy feels right for our contemporary post-capitalist reality but might honestly be a bit too much, especially with the relative lack of critique in that regard. There are also some burping jokes which I suppose children will love. Ralph Breaks the Internet is hardly perfect, but it features the considered sophistication and deeply-workshopped strength of narrative, thematic, and visual elements that one has come to expect from big-budget, high-level animated features, especially those under the Disney aegis. And if it teaches even one male child to avoid the emotional and social pitfalls of Disney’s numerous toxic, chauvinistic MRA-adjacent online critics, then it has provided an important service beyond a couple hours’ worth of solid diversion and entertainment.

Categories: Film, Reviews