Missing Link (2019): Amazing Animation Can’t Save This Story

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     “Missing Link” is a film that could have been so much more. One thing Laika Studios is quite good at doing is taking a novel concept and going deeper with it. We see this with “Kubo and the Two Strings” which takes your basic adventure story and makes it about working through grief and exploring familial bonds. This story is bland. The strongest part of the film are Zoe Saldaña’s performance as Adelina Fortnight and Hugh Jackman as Sir Lionel Frost. The problem is they are fully inhabiting tropes that they never grow beyond. This was sad as this story deserved so much better.

The film was directed and written by Chris Butler.

The film follows Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who wants to join the “Society of Great Men,” who believes he finally has a chance to join the order when he receives a letter from the United States and meets Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) the Sasquatch. The leader of the “Society of Great Men” Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) sends a hunter (Timothy Olaphant) to stop him as Frost must call upon a former friend Adelina (Zoe Saldaña) to get Mr. Link back to his ancestors the Yeti, in the North.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – Laika is a master of stop-motion animation. “Missing Link” continues that same quality. The levels of detail they put into the forest set, the Yeti Temple and the ship is just spectacular. This is Laika once again showing why they are famous for their animation.

Sir Lionel Frost – Sir Lionel is the only character with a real character arc. He goes from a sociopath who uses people for his own glory, to one who considers his friends family. We see this in how he cares for Adelina and Mr. Link/Susan and though it takes work for him to gain empathy, in the end he finally does. Hugh Jackman does a fantastic job in the role. He plays the stuffy English man stereotype but the film at least lets him grow beyond it. The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast and the boxes they are put into.

Adelina Fortnight – Zoe Saldaña’s character is good in that she grows beyond the death of her husband and becomes her own adventurer. The problem is the stereotype the film has given her. She is still one of the best characters in the film but she is the angry latina which is a problematic trope and I wish Laika had been better. I liked her character but that trope kept her from becoming more three-dimensional because she was playing a problematic trope that hurt what character had been formed.

The Yeti Elder – Emma Thompson does a great job as the leader of the Yeti’s in the Yeti Elder. They are a closed off community who imprison Lionel, Adelina and Mr. Link dubbing him a redneck and not one of them. She does a great job of showing why the warriors follow her and also the closed off nature of what her people have become. They are portrayed as a warrior civilization with her as the head with survival above all else. Which given their isolation, I can see but there was no nuance. The Yeti Elder showed as much. She was just as close minded as the English villain just not a sexist imperialist.

Okay:

The Villains – Lord Piggot-Dunceby is simply a sexist pig consumed by ego (he has a great design at least as he is the largest human in the film) while the hunter is just a western style cowboy who never feels threatening. The characters are one dimensional and they serve their purpose within the narrative but that is about it. I’m glad Stephen Fry at least hammed up Lord Piggot-Dunceby or he would have been a bore. So much more could have been to critique the British Empire and the era but Butler was really lazy in trying to delve deeply into any of these characters or ideas.

The Cons:

Mr Link/Susan – Zach Galifianakis was the wrong person for this role. Mr. Link needed to be played by more than a comedian as so much of what he says are meant to be jokes said by a comedian. This was a disservice for the literal mindset and childlike nature of Mr. Link. This is a character who doesn’t really grow. He eventually finds family in Adelina and Sir Lionel but that isn’t through his choice, it is through theirs. Throughout the story he is always rejected and a more nuanced actor and script could have made that mean something.

Colonial Tropes – The problematic colonialist tropes that stood out where how native cultures were treated as props. They were just there to get Sir Lionel to his next location and discovery was always seen as new. The power of the British Empire is never questioned even as the film tries to be progressive.

I didn’t like this film but I didn’t hate it either. This film was enjoyable and fine. I would also only recommend for people who are fans of Laika like myself and who want to keep the studio going. I don’t want stop-motion animation to become a thing of the past, and Laika Studios is still one of the best at it. I do wish this film had managed to stand more for something and hadn’t been problematic, but for a forgettable fun film, it was serviceable.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Logan (2017): A Dystopic Western Masterpiece That Explores the Depths of Pain

    “Logan” is the greatest X-Men Films and one of my all time favorite films. This is a film that doesn’t hold back in any way and is powerful because of it. To give my non-spoiler thoughts…it is well worth your time. It is beautifully crafted, has a powerful emotional core that drives it and has a point in some of the overarching themes on both the personal and larger societal level (a theme of X-Men films I’ve always appreciated). I’ll get into the details of all these things later into the review.

     The film was directed by James Mangold who wrote the screenplay along with Scott Frank and Michael Green while being produced by Hutch Parker, Simon Kinberg and Lauren Shuler Donner.

    The story takes place in 2029 and all the X-Men are gone except for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who is taking care of a dying Professor X (Patrick Stewart) who is losing control of his powers and is only able to keep them in check with medication. Wolverine has become a drunk as well and it takes a mutant child called X-23 (Dafne Keen) coming into their lives as she escapes from the Transigen Corporation who created her and other children who she is trying to find to escape to safety in Canada.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is one where there are no more X-Men and we never get a full explanation (a virus is what is implied but never fully explained). Transigen has cyborg mercs who are hunting down mutants and the world is desolate with extreme poverty and wealth. The world is a reflection of ours, as the good X-Men films tend to do.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures the pain and isolation of our characters…from the stark contrasts of light and dark…and splotches of blood or shadow. This is a world that reflects our broken characters.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very much western in theme, which is what I consider the film to be, more so than an X-Men film as the characters didn’t have to be the people they were for the story to work. This story stands strong on it’s own and the soundtrack reflects that. Marco Beltrami made a fantastic soundtrack.

The Characters – The characters are one of the strongest part of the film as it is their wrestling with their pain and choices they make from it that define them and the film.

Donald Pierce – Pierce is head of the Reavers and is a charming, brutal character. I wish he’d been the big bad as the Mad Scientist was pretty lame. Pierce just loved the joy of the hunt and being in control and respected power. This made him interesting and it takes a lot to take him down.

The Family – There is an African-American family that takes them in that the Reavers with the Wolverine clone destroy. It is the first bit of compassion our characters experience and it all ends with the father holding a gun at Wolverine even after Wolverine saves him from his clone…it is such a tragic course of events that leads to both the death of Professor X and Logan and Laura back on the road.

Caliban – Is an albino mutant who can track mutants and is taking care of Xavier. He is a kind and desperate mutant who ends up being used by the Reavers again (he was used by the corporation in the past) but sacrifices himself so that Logan and Laura can escape. I really liked his character. He is fearful and it is contrasted with Xavier’s sorrow and Logan’s rage.

Laura / X-23 – Dafne Keen is a great actress. She gives an intensity to her character where it is believable that she was created and experimented on in a lab. You can understand her rage and her killing Reavers and becoming a family with Professor X and Logan is beautiful…as is her losses she goes through. She is one of the clear leader among the New Mutants that Transigen created.

Charles Xavier / Professor X – Charles is going crazy and is suffering from brain degeneration that he has to take pills for, in order to control his powers. He is the external conscience for Logan though as he is the one who helps Laura find them and is the one always pushing Logan to help her. He is full of regrets for those he hurt when he lost control of his powers and his manipulative past…In the end he confesses all of this but no one hears as he is killed. It is tragic and fits the lonely, regret and despair that pervades and follows our heroes. Patrick Stewart once again is acting gold.

Logan / Wolverine – Hugh Jackman gives one of his best performances ever in this role. We get to see him drunk and desperate, sorrowful and in despair, rageful and moments of joy and empathy. He truly owns this character and I’m grateful he got this beautiful sendoff as his character has redemption and becomes an X-Men again.

The Ending – The ending is so sad. The New Mutants escape to Canada but Logan dies, killed by his clone as he finds his core as an X-Men again but at the expense of his life…Though he dies happy as he protects the girl who became family to him and was his daughter, and not just because she was made with his DNA. The scene is powerful and there aren’t many words at his funeral but it captures that even in desperation people can find the will to move forward.

Regret and Pain – Regret and pain are major themes of the film as both Logan and Xavier live with regrets of all those they hurt, killed or destroyed as this is a core motivation for what drives them to protect others, specifically Laura. They are broken from their mistakes and are surrounded by a world that reflects them.

Persecution of Immigrants and Refugees – From Transigen hunting the New Mutants across borders and trying to stop them from escaping to safety in Canada (the current refugees and immigrants doing the same with Trumps immoral new policies), this is a major theme of the story and is one that has always existed in X-Men as persecution and acceptance and compassion for the other is one of the greatest themes of the X-Men.

Pain, Healing and Getting Outside the Self – Healing and looking outside of the self is a major theme of Logan’s character and this film is him finding it again, even after all he has lost and all the pain he’s gone through. This arc ends with his powerful sacrifice for other New Mutants, as Logan once more becomes an X-Men (reflected in the cross at his grave being turned into an X by Laura).

The Cons: Zander Rice – This guy is Mad Scientist ^TM  and anyone could have played him. I wish the Reavers had been the main threat or a scientist who better reflected the world. This world felt like Mad Max and needed a Mad Max type villain. Someone to be Professor X or Logan’s foil. All this guy wanted was power and to create and control mutants and we never see him do anything outside of the lab and hunting our heroes. A better villain like Bane, Joker or Immorten Joe would have made this film perfect.

   This was a film that achieved everything it set out to do, with the only con I could really find being how forgettable the main villain was. Everyone else served a purpose that drove the story in narrative in a rewarding way and had payoff at the end. This is a film that reminds us how important it is to look outside of ourselves, no matter what the cost is and that the actions we do matter and can make a difference even in the worst of world circumstances. This film will probably make my Top 5 Films of 2017 as it is one of the best super hero and comic book films I have ever watched and is a beautiful, tragic film with an unforgettable story. What a sendoff for Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Chappie (2015): A Great Premise Ruined by Poor Villains

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    I’ll start out by saying I like “Chappie” more than “Elysium” but it doesn’t come close to “District 9,” in regards to projects that Neill Blompkin has done. Having the South African rappers Die Antwood in this film also took me out of it besides the Blompkin villain problem where he seems to overly focus on evil capitalists who have no real depth or motivation to what they do…but I’ll get into that more further into the review. This film was fun and there was the potential to be good and great in it.

SPOILERS ahead

     “Chappie” was directed by Neill Blompkin who also wrote the original story, co-wrote the screenplay and was one of the producers. The other screenwriter was Teri Tatchell and the other producer was Simon Kinberg.

    The story takes place in 2016 as Tetravaal (a weapons company) has created Scouts that are Robotic Cops that enforce the laws in the city. When one of them is injured and the creator decides to use it to see if he can create consciousnesses things unfold for the worst as he is captured by gangsters and one of his competitors seeks to undo him so his Robotic A.I. called the Moose can be the main security force in the city as the injured Scout becomes a new being called Chappie.

The Pros: The World – The world is really cool. The A.I. looks great and you have a world where in reaction to complete police control, what gangs there are have a lot of power and money so there is competition between them.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and Trent Opalach did a great job on it. He is able to show the gritty world of the slums as well as the industrial corporate feel of the factory and business really well.

The Different Robots – The robots were the best part, humans were the weakest part of the story and if we’d had more time developing the robots and Deon’s relationship to them. Any scene with robots was great…and was the few times the horrible human characters (outside of Deon) were actually interesting.

The Moose – The Moose looks like something out of “Robocop” and is a pretty awesome threat! It also has limitations too since it is completely controlled by a human on the other side (like a drone) so it can’t adapt to tactics or use it’s own body. Still, it has a great design and a ton of weapons. It took a lot to take it down.

The Scouts – The Scouts are really cool. They are all business and actually make good cops since they do no harm and have to obey the laws. It was a nice twist to how robocops are usually played in sci. fi. outside of Asimov.

Chappie – Chappie is wonderful. The A.I. is a child but in learning what he is as A.I. he is able to save his maker and his Mommy as he uses the tech around them them to put his Maker into a Scout body and to build a new body for him as he saves their mind onto a flash or transfers it using the neural helmet. Chappie is impossible to hate and is complex as it makes complicated choices for survival and protecting the people he cared about. Sharlto Copley did a great job voicing him.

The Maker/Deon – Deon didn’t expect Chappie to become alive so his arc is dealing with this reality and laying down his life Chappie, which Chappie prevents by giving him immortality and in turn keeping his family. He is a great character as he is the idealistic scientist trapped in a corporate job. He was the only human character I liked so it was good seeing him become A.I.

Mommy – Yolandi from Die Antwood is one of the few kind characters to Chappie and though she can be annoying, when she’s in Mommy mode to Chappie she’s great. She dies protecting him but Chappie makes her another body at the end.

The Cons: Die Antwood – Ninja was just annoying and Yolandi was most of the time…also they weren’t even acting they were just playing themselves…really Blompkin? That’s a super lack of creativity.

The Gangs – The gangs are violent and there is no depth to them. We don’t get there motivations beyond money and they are just as empty as the suits at the corporation.

The Corporate Villains – Bradley played by Sigourney Weaver is an empty suit stopping Deon and Jackman just plays a violent religious competitor. They were seriously uninteresting and really brought down the script showing just how much of a problem writing humans was in this film. Seriously…Deon is the only sympathetic human character.

To Easy of a Victory – Everyone gets to be immortal and the human cops are shown to be inept so the new world Chappie is creating won’t have any threat against it…”Elysium” was better with the bittersweet and “District 9” was super realistic…sadly this film tries to be a fairy tale which just causes a clash in tone from everything we went through in the film prior. There isn’t any cost.

  This is a film I’d recommend renting but not buying, not unless you are a huge fan of Robot Films, in which case there is a great Robot Film in this film but it is brought down by the one-dimensionality of all the human characters. If you want a great film about Robots and A.I., check out “Ex Machina”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/ex-machina-2015-sentience-and-the-path-to-liberation/. It is a film that will probably be in my Top 5 films of the year. This one was an enjoyable ride but never reached the point of great for me.

Final Score: 7.3 / 10

Rise of the Guardians (2012): The Power of Fun

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“Rise of the Guardians,” is a concept that was similar to one that my brother and I had as a child…though instead of Classic Fairy Tale Characters, ours were from children’s literature and some Disney films. So coming into this film, I was intrigued. A few days ago was my second time watching it, the first was on a flight and it impressed me. How did it fair with a second viewing? I’ll go into that with the assessment. The film was created by Dreamworks studios and was directed by Peter Ramsey while also being inspired by “The Guardians of Childhood,” book series by William Joyce.

The premise of “Rise of the Guardians,” is that the Man in the Moon chooses people to become Guardians to safeguard the children of the world from fear. The latest person the Man in the Moon chose is Jack Frost who is seeking his origins as well as working in a group, since he likes being alone and causing playful trouble. The arrival of the Boogeyman Man Pitch Black changes things as all of them are sustained by belief and he wishes to destroy the belief in the Guardians through his power of fear and nightmares. From here the story unfolds as Jack wrestles with himself, his role in the world and his relationship to the Guardians.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The idea – The idea is wonderful, again it was like what my little brother and I did when we were children and it’s what I’ve done with some of my themed Holiday stories that I’ve written. Seeing it through the eyes of a new Guardian in Jack Frost is brilliant too, given the others are already so well established (Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Sandman and Tooth Fairy).

Santa Claus – I love this character and Alec Baldwin does a good job with the Russian accent he makes for the guy. We see Santa Claus as the unofficial leader given it is his world device that first shows him Pitch Black is free. He also has an army of yetis who make toys and elves who are there mostly for comedic relief and so he can make them feel important. He is the most fun loving character besides Jack Frost in this and is the biggest mentor for Jack outside of his anti-mentor Pitch.

The Easter Bunny – This role would have been easy to mess up, but it plays on him being a bunny originally at one point and the fact that he is kangaroo size now and has an Australian accent. He is the but of most of the jokes but when it comes down to helping he is great, taking the heroes to his warren after Pitch’s attack on the Tooth Fairy’s kingdom. He has large eggs that protect the little eggs and the making of the eggs sentient fit the theme of the Tooth Fairy’s hummingbird fairies and Santa’s elves.

The World – The world in this fantastic! It starts out kind of dark with Jack drowning to death and being resurrected by the Man in the Moon. Yep, it starts with killing a teenager. We see how powerful the Guardians are through and why they need Jack when Pitch Black arrives given they’ve become complacent and outside of Sandman, never go out in the field, having their underlings do most of it.

Pitch Black – I almost put him as okay, but if a sequel happens he may be worthy of this spot again. Suffice to say the Man in the Moon messed up giving this guy power. Here is someone who is alone and wants to make everyone afraid and alone. We see him turning Sandman’s dreams into Nightmares and he even manages to destroy the Sandman, nearly destroy the Tooth Fairy, and stops Easter. My only issue with this character is we don’t get motivation. Was he good at one point? Fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a little caution can help. I like his attempts to corrupt Jack too since Jack Frost is already a pretty selfish character. Jude Law’s voice is what really does it. He feels it with such emotion that the character elicits sympathy…until he does horrible things.

Jack Frost – Jack Frost is the main protagonist and is played by Chris Pine. This is probably Pine’s least dickish character, even though Jack is always starting play fights and harassing the Guardians until he becomes part of the team and has to protect them. We see how he used fun to save his little sister and in the process drowned because of it. He uses this same tactic to defeat Pitch, giving children laughter and energy to fight the fear and darkness of Pitch. I liked his character arc, I just wish it hadn’t taken away from the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and Pitch’s development as much as it did.

Okay/Good:  The animation – There are moments where the animation doesn’t look quite right…like you have super detail and after it looks like you can see clearly that it is computer animated. This is contrasted with the fact that there are some beautifully animated scenes too, such as the two resurrections and time in The Warren, North Pole and Tooth Fairy Kingdom.

Okay: The Tooth Fairy – She is energetic and obsessed with teeth, and probably has a crush on Jack like the rest of her fairies. I like her but she’s more defined by her relationship to the protagonist and her job…not like Bunny and Claus, who do a lot of action based on their personalities. We learn later she collects teeth because they hold childhood memories…but this is never used in regards to her. Who was she before she was the Tooth Fairy? What does she see in Jack? These were the questions I had.

The Sandman – It is is creative in that they made it gender neutral as a character and it talks through making symbols with sand, but Sandman has Tooth Fairy’s problem. Why does it give children dreams? Does it know the Guardians need the belief so it is giving them an energy source? How is he tied to Nightmares? Because Nightmares destroy him, but children’s laughter resurrects him. Again, I like the character, but can’t really list as a pro, though I’d like to. There isn’t enough there to like. The Sandman is a force of nature like the Man in the Moon almost. When everyone is strong, he is strong and can one-shot Pitch, when everyone is weak, Pitch can absorb him into his Nightmares.

The Final Fight – Pitch isn’t really a threat in the end, which is a fitting way to tackle nightmares, but we never see why the Man in the Moon created him or why he is suddenly so weak after owning nearly all the world but this one child. I think it falls a little into the savior trope with the kid and Jack Frost…which is a shame since when they fight him it is as a team with all the Guardians with a resurrected Sandman present. Pitch threatens to come back, but he is no longer a threat…I wish he’d still felt like one. Fears don’t just go away, and I’d expect a bit more out of the living embodiment of fear.

The Writing – The writing isn’t the best. It is no Pixar, it is alright, just isn’t great. It kind of falls into the comic book writing trap where it becomes cliche…but the voice actors and animators are able to elevate it thankfully.

In the end, “Rise of the Guardians,” was really good, but not great with a second watch. It doesn’t have the depth of the “How to Train Your Dragon” Franchise but is still one of Dreamworks better films. Jack is a good protagonist, even though he takes away from time with the rest of the Guardians…and his arc is a little predictable, but it is fun. His power and center of fun is really the theme of this movie and it achieves that. This film was a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it. It was a pleasure to watch it again with a bunch of friends.

Final Score is 8.5 / 10