Saturday, September 02, 2017

To Porg or not to Porg.

So as "The Last Jedi" has gotten closer, various behind the scenes and toy reveals have given us The Porg.  Or thousands of Porgs from the look of things.  And I see people either diving right into Disney's plans to assimilate us into the Porg Collective with what I assume is weapons-grade cute developed somewhere in a Sith temple on Malachor, or immediately turned off by the hype and afraid we are getting new Ewoks.

I spent a lot of my fandom hating on the Ewoks, but now that I am older and I hear Porgs being compared to them I say: I hope the Porgs are like the Ewoks.  They would be lucky to be Ewoks, because Ewoks may be the single most subversive thing the Flannel-clad Maker ever gave us in his six films.

Stand back, I'm about to testify to the mad genius of George Lucas, because it took me 30 years to figure out that Mr. Eleven Thirty-Hate used all that kiddie marketing to make us all love an entire population of Hannibal Lectors.

We mostly remember cute little things, don't we?  Like this little guy.
Get Kenner on the phone, I need a dozen in plush, STAT!

He came along just when Leia needed him most, and he takes her in.  Do you remember why he took her in?
She killed this guy.  Wicket only decides for sure that Leia needs to come back to the tribe because she has shown she's a warrior.  He now sees her as an equal.  Don't believe me?  What is going to happen to the guys who are dumb enough to fall into a trap and then get (much to Han's chagrin) captured without a fight?

They are going to be eaten.
THEY are going to be EATEN.
They are GOING to be EATEN.

The Ewoks consider anyone outside of their tribe to be food, unless that someone has demonstrated the ability to kill.  Their minds are changed only after their golden god dissuades them otherwise. And THAT is only after he demonstrates he is an angry god by floating around the village.  Remember, they are going to kill and eat Han, Luke, and Chewie to honor Threepio EVEN AS HE IS COMMANDING THEM NOT TO and Luke has to Force the issue.  The Ewoks are willing to defy GOD HIMSELF for their hunger for flesh.*  

Did they do all that to Leia?  Not at all, she's basically become one of them. (More on this later.)

Take a moment and bask in the glory of our now luminous Princess and General.
So, the Ewoks are then persuaded to join the Rebel Commando company in their assault on the Imperial Garrison.  Sure we get funny moments like Chewie and the Ewoks swinging like Tarzan, or the Ewok on the speeder.  We get sad moments like the little Ewok who's Mom gets killed.  But really, why do the Ewoks get in on this?  What are they getting in return?

A kick ass drum set.

But besides that, where do you think the troopers for those helmets are?  Lando, don't eat the soup.

So thinking of this, take just a moment and look at this screencap:

What do we say to the god of death? Yub nub.

Realize you are actually seeing a false deity acting as a god of death setting his flesh eating minions upon soldiers who are just trying to do their jobs.  This isn't the First Order where Stormtroopers are trained nearly from birth, or the Republic where the Troopers are cloned to fight.  These are conscripts from across the galaxy, or maybe someone who joined up to get off their little podunk planet because THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE (even Luke was on his way to the Imperial Academy).  Instead they will be eaten by friggin' teddy bears with spears that someone on this day gave fully armed commando support to.  

Now, I am not the first person to come up with all this.  Before Disney purchased Lucasfilm, we used to have a wonderful--and semi canonical-comic series called "Star Wars Tales."  Yes, there are things they published like Indiana Jones investigating tales in Mexican jungles of an Ape Man, only to find an ancient crashed hunk-of-junkspaceship with the skeleton of a pilot who seems so very familiar to him somehow, and the ape-man with a life debt watching over the body.  But they gave us some keen insights into Star Wars as well, such as issue 14's "Apocalypse Endor."

 I love this story because it disables the myth of the "incompetent Stormtrooper" I have discussed elsewhere.**  It also points out, the Ewoks are vicious killing machines who will eat your flesh in a ritualized manner.

And that's why I have to bow to the genius of George Lucas.  He takes the idea of cute marketing to kids, and packages it up, but in that package he has actually given us cute little cannibalistic monsters; not obviously monstrous like a rancor or a krayt dragon, but far more insidious.  Right in front of us all this time.

Now, will the Porgs be something like that?  I don't know, it's not like Disney would do something like that, would they?

Hey, have you seen the new "Forces of Destiny" cartoon?  Here's an episode with Leia on Endor.  It's two and a half minutes long, give it a look and come on back.

So, the Ewoks get two Stormtroopers here, right?  Captured alive.  They all go back to the village, and Leia gets a gift.  A leather dress.  Where did the leather come from?  Where did they get a human sized piece of leather to make her a dress and ritualistically bring her into the tribe?

No Dan, Disney wouldn't do that. Disney does nice Star Wars, they wouldn't suggest Leia is walking around in a dress made from the hide of her enemies.

And they certainly wouldn't make a film where every character you care about dies on screen in heartrending fashion, would they?
A Baze of Glory
So, maybe Porgs are just cuteness overload.  Maybe something we need since it looks like The Last Jedi is taking our characters some pretty dark places.  But maybe, just maybe, there's a little old style subversion hiding in those Puss-in-Boots-from-Shrek eyes, and a joke you may find to your taste.

Actual screen cap: Looks like Chewie chew-chew-chooses the Porgs.
Oh, Chewbacca doesn't eat raw meat?  Remember how they got captured by the Ewoks on Endor in the first place?

Besides, what do you think Luke's been living off of on one island for the last 10-15 years?

A smorgasporg.  

*At least we believe Threepio was trying to stop them.  Perhaps he saw himself with an opportunity to finally free himself of Skywalker family drama and live as the Ewok god until he rusted?

**A native population that outnumbers you hundreds to one in terrain that they know every inch of.  It's almost the kind of thing that might lead a big, strong country to fight a war for 15 years or more somewhere.

(All Star Wars images property of Disney, used here under fair-use laws, not for profit.)
(Even I don't mess with the Mouse.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Let My Sequels Go! The Official Black Owl Review of "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Spoiler free for two paragraphs!
I will not rehash here my love of this franchise, all the way back to Pierre Boulle's book that was originally translated as "Monkey Planet," but more artfully as "Planet of the Apes."  You can read my review of the first of these modern films here and get my whole simian love affair leading into "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."  

Somehow, I never reviewed "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," and I regret the oversight.  Let me assure you I found it as engaging and intelligent as "Rise" and again just as sad in its own way.  It leaves the idea that war is on its way at the end, and I was both eager to see where a third film would go, and anxious that like so many modern films we would stumble in the third act.  I am delighted to say that my worry was unwarranted.  There is plenty of action in "War" but at its heart it is a movie asking questions like what defines humanity?  Is vengeance our principle trait? Do we deserve to maintain status as the dominant species if we continue being so utterly horrible to each other? This is a smart movie, an exciting movie, and a heartbreaking movie.  In a world of reboots done simply to cash in on nostalgia, these Apes movies manage to take the basic conceit and use it as a vivid tableau to examine whether it's just intelligence that defines humanity, or something greater.

Spoilers commence.

A lot of movies, particularly hero movies, play off a lot of religious themes and imagery.  Be it Ripley in "Alien 3" throwing out her arms in a cross as she sacrifices herself to kill the hatching queen, or Superman in "Superman Returns" throwing out his arms in a cross as he sacrifices himself to save the world from Lex's growing continent or Superman in "Batman V. Superman" throwing out his arms under the burden of saving the exploding rocket...well you get the idea (especially with Superman) and lot of Christ imagery out there.  I came to realize with this film however that the "Apes" trilogy went old school with their heroic/savior template.  Caesar is not Christ, but rather Moses.  I found that pretty refreshing.

Think about it, he starts as an infant hidden away, is taken in and raised by the ruling species, and ends up returning to his people.  In this film we specifically get him preventing the beating of an ape slave by an overseer, him seeing the delivery of a plague that strikes at the children of humanity, a hurried escape from a pursuing Army that is then swept away (snow is just very cold water after all), and finally he leads his people to a promised land that he can look into, but as a result of his sins, he cannot himself enter.  His destiny we are assured from our Ape movie knowledge is to be known as a Lawgiver- Ape shall not kill Ape.  Andy Serkis's performance has been universally, and rightfully praised as one that shines through the mocap, and his Moses by way of chimpanzee I can only hope is in some way obliquely inspired in the mind of the writer by Charlton Heston's "The Ten Commandments." (After all, Heston got to do HIS Christ imagery when he threw his arms out to save the survivors in "The Omega Man.")

Every Moses however needs a Pharaoh.  In this film we get Woody Harrelson as "The Colonel" (his uniform says McCullough, but I don't think they ever say his name).  A plague has taken his first born, he is relentless in pursuit of the enemy, and that uncompromising nature proves to be his undoing.

I saw a rather astute observation, that the crux of this film is how Caesar and The Colonel deal with the need for vengeance.  Caesar to the point he has broken his law of killing ape, and his pursuit of vengeance has endangered his entire tribe.  The Colonel- though perhaps in ways correct from a purely Darwinistic standpoint-has prioritized killing the Apes and any carriers of the now mutating Simian flu to the point of going to war against the rest of humankind.  Both Serkis and Harrelson are electric in these roles, and their interaction is gold.

I was also pleased that The Colonel with his argument for survival of the species really does have a point, though the film does not simply say he is the bad guy because he's Army; More of the US Army is on the way to stop his reign of terror against Ape and Man.  It's a wonderfully complex setting and character, making you consider just who is right, and if we are just destined to continually fight enemies or one another.

I do want to address a criticism I have seen of this movie, regarding the idea that no female character--human or ape--has a spoken line in this film.  I do think that the writers could certainly have done better in that regard, but there are female ape characters who communicate through sign language, and I feel that should not be dismissed.  I also want to point out the delightful young Nova.  She is made mute by the mutated Simian virus and learns to sign from the orangutan Maurice.  She is pivotal to not only the actual plot (she saves Caesar's life and facilitates the Ape Escape), but also in exploring the theme of what it is to be human.  She discusses whether or not she can be ape, and provides the human anchor in this film that gives the argument that though there are awful humans, there are good people as well.   The initial criticism has some validity, but I do not want that criticism to overshadow the enormous impact, story-wise and emotionally, this girl fighting through a disability brings to the film.

And speaking of that mutation, this movie has done a very interesting thing with Ape-lore.  The Apes have entered the desert near the lake; humanity is being reduced to a mute, almost savage state; young Cornelius and young Nova are in place. If you remember the Easter Egg in the first movie that a space probe with astronauts had been launched and lost; how tidy it would be to now have a fourth film placing the events of the classic just a couple of decades after this movie, and now instead of Nova being the poor, mute savage following Taylor around, she is the advocate for the Apes to him...and for him to the Apes.  That could be a compelling film and continue where this excellent, heartrending, intelligent trilogy leaves us.  

Maybe Nova in the next one can save human and ape alike with arms wide open?

PS- Oh, and Bad Ape.  I just want to hug Bad Ape.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Well, It’s About Time: The Official Black Owl Review of “Wonder Woman.”

Before I start, I want to take just a moment and remind everyone of the best thing about “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

You emailed her, Bruce; why do you think she's with Clark?
Indeed, I think there’s a fair argument that Diana is not only the best thing but the only good thing in the movie.  Gal Gadot dominated the screen every time she was on it.  She’s the only one in the entire movie acting like a superhero.  And though denied the obvious killing blow her character should have had in the film, she leaves an indelible impression.  (You have an Amazon warrior you worked in for this cameo; you have a SPEAR that makes no sense to exist in the film, that will kill the other good guy if he uses it; OBVIOUSLY you give the spear to Diana! But I digress…)

So yeah, Wonder Woman, best thing about BvS.
So yeah, “Wonder Woman,” best thing about the DC Cinematic Universe.

DC's previous efforts turned me off so much, I didn't even plan to see this in the theater.  But, the right people were saying good things, so I gave in.

Thank Goddess I did.

We finally have a DC movie in this new continuity that seems to understand the character.  We finally have a DC movie that understands “Epic” does not have to mean “Disaster Porn.”  We finally have a DC movie that has a consistent message throughout and does not seem to be confused at its own theme.  We have character development instead of characters doing what they do because that character needs to do that, motivation be damned. 

We have a DC movie with a superhero being a goddamn superhero.  And it’s about time.

Patty Jenkins knows what she’d doing here, primarily understanding how to present your protagonist as the center of her own story.  As much as there is humor in how Diana deals with her first trip to Man’s World, she is never a victim of events, she is always ready to act, and the movie never apologizes for the fact Diana is the most powerful being on the planet.  There’s never an irony to Diana’s strength that winks and says “it’s funny because she’s super and she’s a girl!”  Diana is given to us as a warrior, even as a child, and the movie is stronger for it.  Patty Jenkins knows the line between "sexy" and "beautiful" and knows which side of it Diana should be on.  Additionally, Jenkins does a great job taking one of my major complaints about the Zach Snyder films and using it as a storytelling tool here: Desaturation. 

Themyscira is brilliant colors and bright daylight, while London is dingy and drained of hue; it makes sense.  Man’s world is dark and at war, and it is a darkness that threatens to overtake Diana as well.  I have heard rumor that color will slowly ebb into “Justice League” as the story proceeds and Supergrim returns to be Superman.  I hope that’s true, because “Wonder Woman” shows us what a world full of heroes should look like…and then tells us ours is lacking.

In this film, Diana is the hero we should be aspiring to, even though this movie presents a journey of self discovery and understanding for her.  I have long said the difference between DC and Marvel is not a matter of which is better.  Marvel has heroes to identify and commiserate with; DC has heroes to whom you aspire.  Choose the one that works best for you.  The films we have seen from DC so far have not understood that, and have chosen only to blunt the purity of character and purpose in the comics in the name of “badass” and “edgy.”  Finally, “Wonder Woman” does not do that.  Wonder Woman says plainly that we’re not worthy…but we can be, and Diana gives us an example up to which we should try to live.  

This, Zach Snyder, is what Superman SHOULD be.  I know Snyder was involved in production on this film (and there’s one place I feel like he was TOO involved- more in a minute) and even worked on story, but as a whole this movie captures what makes Wonder Woman’s character great while still making her someone who is growing and learning, and it neither abandons her character in exchange for action (MoS, act 3), nor chooses to make her a grim and gritty facsimile of the comic book hero (BvS).

Now, I hear some folks groaning at me, because yes, Wonder Woman kills people in this film, and I have been pretty vociferous in my criticism of Superman snapping Zod’s neck and Batman basically being the Punisher with pointy ears and a better budget.  But Diana is a Warrior, and warriors fight wars.  But, unlike the previous movies, we see the consequences.  It’s not, snap a neck, cry once, then a sudden “everything is great!” coda.  It’s a horrible, horrible war, and Diana wants it to end, wants all war to end.  Her discovery that the Great War is not the manifestation of Ares but rather just the evil of man tempers her; but she knows the fight must continue, and she finds that the ultimate weapon against war is love.

And sometimes love is sharp like a sword named “Godkiller.”

Which we may now give our Daughters and Granddaughters; awesome!
Now, I’ve gone on a bit about what I liked about the film, but I do have to warn you all that it is not without its flaws.  Like MoS there are some third act pacing issues.  When Diana does finally confront  Ares (and I do like the bait and switch we get there) the fight is probably three minutes too long, and drifts into Snyderland in its depiction.  Ares passes the “Awesome and Epic” mark on the onscreen Super Scale and lands firmly in “Cheezy” for a few moments.  Though, we manage to keep from pegging the Snyder Disaster Porn needle, so it’s not a show stopper. 

I don’t know that the human villains get as much due as they deserve.  I know you can’t give Ludendorff too much background because then you lose the Ares red herring, but surely we could have explored a bit more of Doctor Poison’s motivations and history.  Elena Anaya brings a good vulnerability to her, and the cracked porcelain mask is very effective here.  Her scars speak to some tragedy making the villain, and would be a good anchor for Diana’s later mercy, but we don’t quite get that.  Chris Pine is a little too Captain Kirk in some places (right down to a motorcycle scene- though I don’t think he hangs off of anything), but honestly it does work well for Steve Trevor. Given Pine’s fate (and fame) I wonder if “Wonder Woman 2” might do what the Lynda Carter series did and in advancing the second season from WWII to the 70s, make Pine play a descendant of Trevor’s just as Lyle Waggoner suddenly became Steve Trevor Jr. 

The supporting cast is pretty great here, from a delightfully British and cheeky Etta Candy (played by the original “The Office” Lucy Davis) to Trevor’s trio of do-gooder (for the right price) mercenaries.  Though, stealing the show are the citizens of Themyscira.  Robin Wright’s Antiope (and her grin as she rides into battle against the Kaiser’s forces hitting the beaches of Paradise Island) is a small but absolutely stunning presence, and I want my Antiope spin-off right now.  What’s one more minor gripe about this movie?  Needs more Antiope.

Frank always underestimated her.

Now, something small but potentially great, boxer Ann Wolfe plays the Amazon Artemis and certainly has the presence to pull it off.  There was a time in the comics where Diana stepped out of the role of Wonder Woman, and Artemis stepped up.  Do I want to someday see Ann Wolfe in that role?

Yes.  Yes I do.

But right now, there’s Gal Gadot (whose name I recently discovered I was mispronouncing- it’s “guh-DOTE”) who may be as suited to this role as Chris Evans is to Captain America or even as Christopher Reeve is to Superman.  Yes, I am guilty of being all “she’s too skinny” when they cast her, and for the record, I am an idiot.  She absolutely brings the physicality, but along with that, she is the Warrior and the Diplomat; the Violence and the Tenderness; the Justice and the Mercy.  She’s just Wonder Woman, and she disappears into the role.  She gets to be—unlike Cavill’s Superman or Affleck’s Batman—a Superhero.  I not only buy it, I want seconds.  Almost enough to rewatch BvS (or just fast forward to the Diana scenes).

So there we are DC.  You’ve shown you have at least one set of movie makers working for you who actually understand the character.  You’ve flipped Marvel the bird in showing you can have an excellent film led by a female character (cough Black Widow cough).  You have done much to cleanse my palette of MoS and BvS*.  Do it again, learn your lesson.

You could start with an Antiope spin-off.

*You may think I have not bothered to mention “Suicide Squad” because I am trying to ignore it even exists.  You are correct.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

You’re Welcome: The Official Black Owl Review of “Moana.”

“Holy smoke, Dan,” I hear you say. “Not only is this not the type of movie you ever do reviews on, this movie came out back in November.  Why are you even doing this?”
The short answer of course is, “ I do what I WANT to do!”  The more involved answer is two-fold.  I like watching animated films, and I like musicals, so I am a bit of a sucker for a lot of the newer kids movies that come out these days.  I don’t however rush out and watch them, because I have a soon to be 3-year-old granddaughter, and little Jade will make sure I see the movies I should be seeing (she also introduced me to “Hotel Transylvania” and “Zootopia,” and then we’ve shared some Studio Ghibli time together too).  I am fresh back from a few days at her house, and her film of choice not once but twice was “Moana” and it’s a delightful film from start to finish. 
The animation is gorgeous, and it seems Disney has finally cracked the code on dealing with other cultures without either appropriating or condescending to them.  The songs are out of this world, with a score by Mark Mancina beautifully falling in with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Also as I have stated a million times, Dwayne Johnson is weaponized charisma, and even just voicing Maui it’s a great performance—including his singing—from The Rock. 
“Great,” you say, “all completely true. But why are you choosing to write a review when there’s nary a superhero nor spaceship in sight?”  Because this is the movie I wanted “Interstellar” to be.

"What are you talking about?"
 Looking back over this blog, I never did do a review of “Interstellar.”  I know a lot of people really liked it and I don’t begrudge them having their minds blown.  I grew up watching Star Trek though, and time dilation is not a big reveal to me. (Except maybe that Nolan created a real sense of time dilation as the 170 minute running time seemed to last about 10 hours to me; seriously, how many times did I have to hear “Abort, Dr. Mann”?) The film really left me cold, but it wasn’t really the running time or the desperate need of an editor that turned me off.
"No really, abort, Dr. Mann!"
 It was a movie that betrayed its own message.  We start on Earth, dealing with the effects of climate change because people have ignored the science that could help them, and blamed the misuse of science and technology that caused the problem in the first place.  Society has become so insistent on ignoring science, schools teach that the Apollo program was faked.  Luckily, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has been working behind the scenes to science the shit out of all this and use a new wormhole to discover new worlds to which we may evacuate humanity.  Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) will sacrifice his life with his daughter to go out and find a strange new world.  Hurray science!  Hurray human spirit of discovery!  Hurray knowledge!
Oh, but wait.  Brand’s a liar, and never thought any of this would work.  Later when the ship has a choice of tracking down respected scientist Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) who proclaims he has found the perfect world, or going after the planet where ship scientist Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) has a boyfriend who is likely dead, the crew chooses science over her gut feeling.  Ah, but Mann’s a liar, scientists suck, and we should have stuck with love!  If that's not weird enough, Cooper falls into a black hole called Gargantua and things get downright depressing.
The Space movie that hates Space.
 Cooper lost his daughter, the world is barely saved, and they could all have gotten along much better if they had pointed all those resources to the elder Brand’s plan B, which is what saves humanity in the end.  It was like two different people wrote the beginning and the end with completely different reasons for writing each part.
So, what does any of this have to do with a nice girl on Montanui?  She lives in a world that has forgotten what it once was.  The spirit of exploration that once drove her people has been replaced by a too-cautious contentment that ignores the impending disaster about to befall the environment.  This disaster was brought on by the misadventures of Maui, who was responsible for things like coconuts, and islands on which to live, and many wonderful things.  Like science though, acting without regard for balance, he brought disaster.  Again like science, he is what is necessary to restore the damage done in the first place. 
Tapping into her ancestors’ desire to voyage, Moana sets out to find Maui and return the balance of nature to Te Fiti, just as Cooper jumps on the Endurance to go fix humanity’s problems in “Interstellar.”  The difference here?  Moana manages to use Maui, and her own intellect, to figure out the problem and save the world, restoring the spirit of the Voyage to her people.  Cooper managed to discover that science was the bad guy…and, well, I am not really sure what message I am supposed to get from “Interstellar,” while “Moana” gives me themes of growth, finding answers to today’s problems  by looking “beyond the line where the sea meets the sky,” and the betterment of society by understanding how the world around you works, and not being scared of doing what you must to fix errors of the past.
“Moana” manages to praise the idea of intelligent progress while neither losing nor relying too much on sentimentality.  “Interstellar” betrays progress for sentimentality, and gives me a message that the more feasible “plan B” was really the right way to go, and maybe we didn’t really have to leave our solar system at all. Or maybe we do because we can blast our own answers back through time maybe?  I don’t know, “Interstellar” becomes its own Gargantua, collapsing under its own immense weight, unable to deliver a cogent message.  “Moana” sings its message loud and clear, and leaves you with a people restored, once again willing to take on the great unknown in a world they have saved from annihilation. 
To boldly go...
So, if you haven’t seen “Moana,” I think you should.  It’s a reminder of why we as a people should never be content “where you are” and should consider “how far I’ll go.”  Also, a lot shorter than “Interstellar,” and with a far more satisfying delivery.
You’re welcome.