Onward (2020): Pixar’s exploration of Brothers and Family

Onward (2020) - IMDb

    “Onward” is Pixar that is on the level of “Monsters Inc.” and “Monsters University” as it primarily a relationship between two guys that drives the story. This story once again has the depth I’ve come to expect in Pixar in the relationships between the characters that are explored. I really wish we’d gotten more of that exploration as it would have pushed the film to great. Suffice to say, if you are a fan of Pixar, definitely check this film out. I rented it off Amazon.

The film was directed by Dan Scanlon who co-wrote the screenplay along with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.

On Ian’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday he and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) receive a wizard staff that belonged to their father. From here they must find the Phoenix Gem to restore their father fully as on Ian’s initial attempt at summoning he only manages to summon his father’s legs. They have 24 hours before the spell ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Modern Fantasy World – I’ve always been a fan of urban fantasy. Modern fantasy creatures put into the modern world leads to fun and interesting situations. In this this is best expressed in The Manticore who was an adventurer who ran a tavern but  turned it into a more Chuck E. Cheese type joint in order to survive. We also see how Unicorns dig through the trash and you have a Pixie motorcycle gang. This world is so much fun and I’m glad Pixar made this film, simply for the world alone.

The Manticore – The Manticore is the one who gives into the quest and is reborn in the brother’s quest for the Phoenix Gem to bring back their dad. She ends up raging and burning down her restaurant and teaming up with Laurel Lightfoot to get her sword back as we learn that the Phoenix Gem is tied to a curse and only the sword can destroy it. Octavia Spencer is absolutely fantastic in this role. By the end of the film her Tavern is more traditional and she is once again the storyteller recounting her past adventures.

Laurel Lightfoot – Julia Louis-Dreyfus does an amazing job as the mother of the brothers. Her quest to get to them is the B-plot and I really enjoy how we see her taking more control of the situation over time. In her we see both the improvisation to solve problems that Barley has and also her nervous and overthinking nature that her son Ian inherited. She is key to the final battle and I really liked how she plays off her sons and the Manticore.

The Lightfoot Brothers – The core relationship is that between Ian and Barley. Their arcs involve Ian developing courage and confidence in himself, and Barley taking responsibility and opening up about how he ran away from his dad on his death bed because he was so afraid. This arc ends with Barley finally getting to say good-bye to his dad and Ian getting his confidence and realizing it was from how his older brother Barley raised him that he found it. After this magic is back in the world and Ian is now a wizard as we see him use all the spells from Barley’s game…that are real life spells and not just cards.

Death and Saying Good-bye – Barley’s relationship to his dad is the heart of the story in that it is his trouble letting go that I think feeds off how he always trying to escape into games and getting into trouble. In the end he does get to say good-bye and we see how each of the family members are connected to their father in the final shots of the film. All the characters get to say good-bye in their own way as Ian is able to accept his dad’s death because his brother raised him in the ways he’d always wanted his dad to and like his dad he inherited his magic so part of him will always be carried on in Ian.

The Cons:

Action Over Character Moments – This is very action heavy film. This is largely due to it taking inspiration from a Dungeons and Dragons style quest. For this reason it never stops being fun but it also means that we don’t get to see the relationship between the brothers develop as much as it should. They have moments of conflict and opening up to one another, but the film needed more of that. This was a script where the action of the quest took precedent over the character moments at different points.

The Minor Characters – Besides the Manticore most of the minor characters aren’t very memorable. I didn’t care about the Pixie gang beyond them being antagonists. The cop characters are just kind of there, even though the Centaur is set-up to become the Lightfoot’s step-dad. This was a shame as we don’t really get any motivations of these characters. Another draft could have changed this and in turn brought the film to great.

This is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year, and I’m glad it rentable from home given all that is going on with Corvid-19. Please stay safe everyone. This film is about family and the relationships that define us. Hold those relationships close and know just how important you are to so many others both friends and family. If you get the chance definitely check out this film. I hope we see more original projects like this from Pixar in the future.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10 Really good due to the core Lightfoot Drama.

The Shape of Water (2017): A Transcendent Romantic Fairy Tale

   “The Shape of Water” might end up being my favorite film of the year. This is a film that is beautifully told and reminds me of “Beauty and the Beast,” meets “Amelie” but with so much more going on than either of those stories. This is a film where every character, whether minor or major matters and out of it we get a compelling love story that is so much more. This is a story about characters who aren’t given a voice (both literally and metaphorically) finding their voice and from there, a level of transcendence or change within themselves or their situation. The cast was wonderfully done and for my non-spoiler thoughts…I can’t wait to watch it again. This is easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best work, and given that he was co-writer and co-producer as well as the director, this story was clearly his vision and it is beautiful. Seriously, check this film out if you get the chance.

The film was directed, co-wrote and co-produced Guillermo del Toro, co-written by Vanessa Taylor and co-produced with J. Miles Dale.

The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works at a secret government agency with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and sharing an apartment with her closeted friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her world is soon changed when a government agent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a mysterious “asset,” a creature who changes Elisa’s life forever.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is that of the 1950’s of the United States but with fairy tale, fantasy and sci. fi. elements…both in how the story is presented and the amphibian man being so central to the plot, as well as the abilities he has. It is also a world full of twists since spies and government agents inhabit this cold world universe and the secret lab where most of the action takes place.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. From Octavia Spencer’s Zelda, who is Elisa’s translator and calls out how bad their situation is (as the help no one notices or cares about them, just takes them for granted), Giles, who understands Elisa’s love for the creature and helps protect them and both rescue the creature from the lab and getting them both the docks. He is the narrator. Michael Shannon’s Colonel is unhinged and broken and is sympathetic in that, even though he never stops being a threat and monster. Elisa’s and the creature’s romance drives the story and it is awesome. I loved how confident Elisa is in her sexuality and her attachment to the creature as well as the creature’s humanity slowly being revealed as he opens up to her. Doug Jones once again owns this alien type role he is in. I can’t wait to buy this movie when it comes out.

The Soundtrack and Cinematography – The soundtrack has a fairy tale and jazz feel to it, intermixed with this dark foreboding when we are at the lab and the Colonel is on screen. The cinematography is amazing too, it reminded me of “Amelie” with the use of color contrasts but focusing in on Elisa’s perspective. Alexandre Desplat did a great job on the soundtrack and I loved Dan Laustsen’s cinematography.

The Romance – The romance is the main drive of the story and it is beautifully done. It starts with Elisa and the creature touching hands separated by glass, to her leaving him eggs, to eating in his area with him and teaching him sign language…to his rescue and eventually having to let him go as he dies not being in the salt water but has given Giles back his hair and healed a wound he caused on Giles accidentally. The romance is the core of the film and because it illustrates different aspects of the characters and the world they inhabit.

Surrealism and Fairy Tales – The Fairy Tale element is revealed most profoundly in the opening shot where Giles is giving the premise of a monster who turned two lovers’ world upside down…as we see a drowned how with Elisa floating, as if sleeping in the water. There is other imagery like this that gives the film a surrealist element and from that the fairy tale elements of the love story are given more power in their presentation. I love stories like this (“One-Hundred Years of Solitude, most Haruki Murakami, etc.) and this is one of the best presentations of this type of story.

Fighting Adversity and the Voice of the Voiceless – This is a film about giving voice to the voiceless in both the literal sense (our heroes being a mute and an amphibian creature who cannot speak), Zelda, who is black lady with an oppressive husband and Giles being in the closet and kept out from the wealth he once bad before as the marketing world just sees him as a has been. Each of them are trapped (the monster) or oppressed in different ways in a society that ignores them and it is the rescuing and finally freeing of the monster that Zelda finally speaks up against her husband and calls the cops on the Colonel, Giles fights and defends the monster and Elisa and Elisa transcends as she sacrifices herself to save the creature and her cuts she received as a baby are turned into gills, she is reborn by the creature and free to be with the creature, something that would have never been possible before. It is also her drive that helps the others to change their lives too, as she is directly fighting to system by freeing their “asset.”

Okay: First Act Goes a Little Long – The only real criticism I could find with the film is the first third of the film does go on a little long, but it picks up the moment the rescue plan is put into action by Elisa and after that, it doesn’t stop…and it does a good job setting up the world so I can’t put it is a con.

I highly recommend “The Shape of Water.” This film is going to make my Top 5 films of 2017 and if you are looking for a film where you will notice more each time around, as well simply enjoying a beautiful fairy tale that gives voice to the voiceless and has wonderfully compelling characters, who each get full arcs. I cared about where each their arcs were going, even the villain as no one was as simple as they first appeared to be. The film was all about layers and reveals, both in the nature of the characters and the creature and the payoff of their arcs. Check this film out, if you haven’t yet. Guillermo del Toro has done it again and I can’t wait to see what masterpiece he makes next.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Snowpiercer (2013): The Cost of Revolution

     http://consequenceofsound.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/snowpiercer-poster.jpg

     “Snowpiercer” is one of the better films I’ve seen in the post-apocalyptic genre. It has consequences, high stakes and human characters who are relatable, as well as covering the many ways revolution can be viewed and the cost that comes with it, regardless. I’ll get into more details in the assessment.

    The film was directed by Joon Ho-Bong who was also one of the screenwriters, along with Kelly Masterson. “Snowpiercer” was produced by: Park Chan-wook, Lee Tae-hun, Jeong Tae-sung and Steven Nam.

    The story was based on the graphic Novel Le Transperceniege by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean Marc-Rochett.

     The premise is the near future has brought about an attempt to counter global warming that leads to the world freezing over. The survivors board the Snowpiercer and the story unfolds years later in a world where unequal power dynamic lead to the rich preying off of the poor and using them for labor to sustain the train. From here the story unfolds as the main character Curtis (Chris Evans) plots rebellion with his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and second in command Edgar (Jamie Bell). From here the story unfolds as they rebellion ignites.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack does a great job of capturing the tension and the stakes throughout the film. From the first attack to get out of the back of the train…to the moments with the rich in the night club or high society…Marco Beltrami did a great job composing this score.

The Action – Bong Joon-ho knows how to film action and there are a lot of great sequences…from the first fight to get out of the back car, to being stalked in the sauna and the surprise attack the wealthy do on the poor where we learn guns weren’t destroyed and the bullets still exist. The action has purpose too as it drives the characters forward and kills many of them.

The Cinematography – This is a very beautiful movie. A lot of the scenes are cast in shadow which sticks with how dark the theme is. We learn of the evil the wealthy do to the poor and what the poor did to themselves when they first boarded the train. There are no heroes in this world and how the film is filmed captures this stark reality. Hong Kyung-pyo did a good job.

The Characters – There were many good characters in this. I’ll go into depth on who and why.

Mason – Mason is the Minister and primary antagonist until we meet Wilford the religious leader of the train (and the one manipulating everything). Mason is crafty and cowardly and makes a great antagonist. Tilda Swinton makes her weasily and viscous as well as a true believer in Wilford and the Holy Engine. She’s a character I would not have minded sticking around till the end, but she is killed by Curtis in revenge when she facilitates an ambush done by the rich’s thugs.

Tanya – Tanya is the closest we get to a good person as we see her caring for others as well her young son before Wilford’s second takes him away. She fights hard and is there to remind Curtis to keep going on and to lead when he loses his second in command. Her death is powerful for this reason as she never finds her son before she is killed by one of the more powerful thugs in the sauna. Octavia Spencer is wonderful.

Namgoong Minsu – Is one of the addicts who they first rescue who helps them open up the doors to the different cars as long as they provide him with Kronole for his addiction and rescue his daughter as well. He is a compelling character as he notices how the world is changing outside and that the ice melting. He knows they don’t need the train, but because his addiction makes him so selfish he is never listened to. He does make possible his daughters escape as a group attacks and they use the Kronole to make a bomb that destroys the train leaving her and Tanya’s son to find or create a new world. He is compelling character and Kang-ho Song does a good job.

Yona – Yona can see what’s coming which gives her the best bet for surviving at the end. She does manage to survive and rescues Tanya’s son with Curtis as well as getting the chance to hold her father one last time before the bomb goes off. She is an interesting character and I wish we’d gotten more time with her. She’s as smart as her father at hacking the doors. Ah-sung Ko did a great job.

Wilford – The man who accepts the status quo even though it’s unjust and upholds it through terror. Ed Harris makes him personable which makes him all the more frightening. He sees himself as being alone and that all people are expendable. He tries to get Curtis to take his place but fails as Curtis sees through the illusion when Yona arrives and he realizes what he’d become and endorse by being the leader. When the train is destroyed Wilford accepts it and respects those who beat him.

Gilliam – Is the one who worked with Wilford we learn and was using people and rebellions to keep the population balanced. He changes in the end though as he helps Curtis get beyond the halfway mark which leads to him getting killed. John Hurt does an amazing job as the heroic manipulator as we learn he gave his body to the poor to eat so they wouldn’t eat the children anymore. You really get why he’s respected so, which makes the betrayal felt.

Curtis – Chris Evans must be one of the best male actors in Hollywood now…I was impressed. This was “Winter Soldier” level acting and he played the anti-hero role so well. From the reason he trusted Gilliam (his guilt at having eaten people and known the young taste better) and his constant struggle to get his humanity back. He finds it in the end by destroying the unjust system and helping Yona and Tanya’s son escape. His complexity is part of what drives the story as he captures Mason but lets Edgar die in the process.

The Ending – The ending has a point and is all the stronger for it. It takes the corrupt system being destroyed for the children to have a life and it takes leaving the system to create a new one where freedom is found. Bong Joon-ho is truly a great storyteller. You felt the cost of revolution as so many innocents on both sides died even though the victimized poor were in the right.

Okay: Edgar – He’s just an angry rebellious guy. His character doesn’t have much depth but at least adds more dimension to Curtis.

The Thugs – There are a few powerful thugs but none of them really have personality. This I think takes away as we don’t know they serve the system. They are good action moments but they have no personality beyond cruelty.

     This is a movie I’d highly recommend. I want to check out this director’s other work now as the story was unique and powerful and had a point. From the reasons the poor rebelled, from how desperation can ruin the best of people but a single person living by example can change things…as well as the cost of change. It takes so many deaths for the train to finally stop and for people to notice that the train wasn’t needed anymore. Even Curtis misses the fact that the world is melting outside and life is coming back…because for so long the train is all he’s known. It is for this reason Wilford is able to manipulate him so well. Not only does it have a point but the music, characters and story are rich and rewarding. I highly recommend this film.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10