Monday, June 19, 2017

Victory Lap!

Back in 2006, Pixar released Cars, a rather sweet tale of the up-and-coming hotshot getting schooled by a gruff old master and together, the two of them reach the apex of their sport. It also turned out to be race fan Paul Newman's last film and I truly enjoyed the chemistry between Owen Wilson as the full of himself Lightning McQueen and Paul Newman as the Fabulous Hudson Hawk.

Now Cars 3the third installment of the franchise is out and I'm pleased to report that it's well worth going to see. Newman's voice is still there in a couple of flashbacks and new characters are added. Interestingly, the film also has a bit of a "girl power" thread as Margo Martindale voices an old-time racing great named "Louise Nash," Kerry Washington is a numbers-crunching statistician named "Natalie Certain" and Cristela Alonzo shines as the trainer-racer named "Cruz Ramirez." Yes, the old standbys are here, including Larry the Cable Guy's Tow Mater, but the real story is about Lightning finding worth in himself even if he isn't the fastest car on the track anymore. One of the most poignant lines comes from Lightning's competitor Cal Weathers (who is voiced by Kyle Petty) who comments on his retirement by answering McQueen's question about how to know when it's time to quit, "The youngsters will let you know."

And that's the heart of the story - as a new generation of high-tech, computerized machines takes over the tracks from the "race 'em on Sunday, sell 'em on Monday" actual STOCK stock racing cars, is there room for the old ways? Suddenly, McQueen isn't the hotshot - instead he's the "elder statesman" and he doesn't like it one bit. Now he knows all too well how "Hud" felt. (Confession - referring to Newman's old-school character as "Hud" and McQueen as "Hud's boy" just made me happy. It's a lovely, subtle tribute.)

Nathan Fillion voices the future of sponsorship and branding and brings his own brand of smarmy capitalism to a film that (let's face it) will be heavy of the toys, clothing, and geegaws of the upcoming holiday season.

But best of all are the NASCAR cameos and little history lessons tucked in Cars 3. While NASCAR is usually viewed as a white redneck sport (with enough brand loyalty to make sponsors salivate), there's always been a little more diversity than you might expect. And that's one of the lessons of Cars 3 as well - if you can do the work, where you come from doesn't really matter much.

May we all learn that one.

Plus - be sure you get there in time to see "Lou," the short that plays before the main feature!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DC (Finally) Gets It Right!

I've waited a little while to write about DC's latest release, Wonder Woman. I think I simply needed time to process my reactions to this film. So much was riding on Diana Prince's Amazonian shoulders - and not just for the DC movie franchise. Films led by female comic characters have not done well at the box office - see Catwoman and Elektra for evidence of my point. However, the suits tended to think that the problem was with the fact that the lead character was a woman, as opposed to looking at the problems caused by weak scripts, sloppy direction, and indifferent marketing.

Wonder Woman might change all that, for the film is certainly is a game-changer. Director Patty Jenkins, who is best known for her 2003 debut feature, Monster, had much to prove here and the critical as well as commercial love for her film should go a long way towards dispelling the long-outmoded idea that "boys won't go see a movie with a girl lead character, so we don't want to make them." Currently, the film is sitting pretty at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the box office take is estimated to be well in excess of $200 million.

There is simply so much to love about this movie - Gal Gadot is perfectly cast as Diana, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor reminds me of why I enjoyed Hell or High Water so much, and the supporting cast is amazing. Special shout-outs go to Lucy Davis as Steve's grounded assistant Etta, and Robin Wright as Diana's warrior aunt Anitope made me punch the air in delight.

All that said, I wouldn't take very small ones to this. Wonder Woman moves the origin story from WW2 to WW1 and there are a few graphic scenes of battlefield violence. (Not Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge violent, but still - I'd keep the under 10 set outside.) The film carries a rating of PG-13 for the scenes of violence, which don't seem especially "comic-booky," so use caution with the young fry.

The film is taking the Internet by storm, including some fantastic reactions on Twitter.  Patty Jenkins shared a note sent to her by her producer showing the reactions of a kindergarten class (again, I think that's too young for this film, but that's me) and some of the audience reactions are just heartwarming (#17 is my favorite of this list). Alamo Drafthouse (a private business, by the way) in Austin, TX decided to have a women-only screening, which was generally well-received. And, it being Austin, when one man decided his feelings were hurt by this, the mayor responded with wit and humor. And Texts from Superheroes had more fun with this idea than should probably be allowed.

Diana is a warrior who wants to serve the cause of peace. May we all remember that no, it's not about what we deserve; it's about holding fast to our ideals. And perhaps about making swords fashion accessories at society soirees.

Will this save the upcoming Justice League movie? Only time will tell.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Watery Depths

The 2017 summer blockbuster season is officially underway. While this can be cause for rejoicing (I truly enjoyed Guardians 2 and pleasepleaseplease let Wonder Woman be a strong picture!), it can also be a time for scratching your head and saying, "How'd that get greenlit again?"

The sheer expense of making a big summer movie accounts for Hollywood's rampant timidity - why try something new when you've got a built-in audience for a new installment of an established franchise? (Sigh. Yes, Michael Bay, I'm looking at you.) As the global market has become more important to box office receipts - especially China, which limits how many films it will import and wants them all in 3D - Hollywood has increasingly wooed those markets. In the case of Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (let's just call it Pirates), the Mouse took it a step further, premiering the film at the Shanghai Disney resort. Not that I minded that; premiere wherever you want. But it shows that even the Mouse is not immune to that sweet, sweet foreign movie money.

If you like the Pirates movies, you'll like this one. If, like me, you're a little meh on the whole thing, you'll find a great deal to criticize in this one. For me, it was especially annoying that so much of the film's event took place at night. You see, night on the ocean is dark. Darkdarkdark. And the results are murky and difficult to figure out. Add to that the dimming that often comes with 3D and the result is muddy.

As to the plot, it makes little to no sense, but no matter. There are sight gags a-plenty. You get Johnny Depp staggering and mumbling and trying to find something new in a character he first played 14 years ago. You get Orlando Bloom and a wordless Keira Knightley for the original fans, and you get Pirates: The Next Generation with Brenton Thwaites playing the grown son of Bloom's Will Turner and relative newcomer Kaya Scodelerio as a spunky girl astronomer with a mysterious past. There's redemption by the boatload and an after-credits scene that strongly hints that Disney believe the tides have not yet turned on this lucrative franchise.


Now, I don't think many of us were clamoring for a Baywatch revival, but we've got one, anyway. While this is being savaged by critics (and make no mistake, it IS bad), I think people are being overly harsh. Baywatch knows it's a parody of a television show that was already a punch line, and there's a certain charm in setting the bar so low. I went into this one just hoping to not claw my eyes out and I actually found myself sincerely laughing a few times. The film doesn't take itself seriously, the plot is tissue-thin, and completely implausible. Well, Animal House wasn't a documentary and it still makes me howl. The "R" rating is for language (honestly, I think the "F bomb" is used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and possibly a gerund throughout the film) rather than for nudity and the nudity you have is exclusively male. (I know, right?) Yep, even in the shower room. And the morgue, but let's not go there.

It's a big, dumb, stupid summer movie, but it's almost saved by Dwayne Johnson, who has saved many a lousy movie. And yes, David Hasselhoff (who also has a cameo in Guardians 2 - and is on the soundtrack!) as well as Pamela Anderson appear. Just like Keira Knightley in Pirates, Anderson's cameo is wordless. I'm beginning to sense a disturbing trend with that.


Now go pick up your copy of Beyond Casablanca or its sequel and open to a random page. Go see that instead of either of these.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Change Is in the Air!

I was eagerly awaiting Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and was not disappointed. While I understand that some people would prefer more frantic antics, I truly enjoyed the focus on the various formations of what constitutes a "family." I think the film does a great job going a bit beyond the usual WhamBangWow! of a Marvel superhero movie while not succumbing to the dark gritty brooding that is all too often the efforts from the DC offices.

And yes, Baby Groot is adorable, but Drax probably steals the show. Then again - Kurt Russell in full Farrah Fawcett hair, quoting Looking Glass's "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" is hard to beat.

It's a fun, fun popcorn flick that had me tear up there at the end - Michael Rooker, man. Ignore him at your peril - and be sure to stay ALL THE WAY THROUGH the credits!

So there are some changes in the air. For five years now, I've served as a co-host of C19TV's Meet Me at the Movies and it's been quite a wild ride. We've done well over 200 shows and it's time for me to step away, at least for a bit. I'm not sure when my last show will be - I've agreed to stay on until a suitable replacement is found and I'll miss doing the show. It's fun to share my opinions with the wider world and I'm still startled when someone comes up to me on the street to talk movies with me from seeing the show. But it's just time. Watching two movies critically a week on top of my responsibilities at work and my involvement in the community takes a good chunk of time to produce quality work and honestly, I just want to grow tomatoes this summer.

Oh, and there's a movie in that . . .

Also, Ensley and I will be gearing up toward the end of the summer for the (hopefully triumphant) release of A Dream Given Form, which we're incredibly proud of. Drop us a line - our publisher is working with us on book signings and convention appearances and we'd love to see you!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Truth Is Cool!

It's no secret that I likes me a good documentary from time to time. There are amazing true stories being told through film and there's certainly an art to pacing and cutting a film to build tension when the basic bones of the story are known to viewers. Documentaries do this and also, of course, bring unknown stories to a much wider audience.

I recently saw the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress and I urge you to seek out this film, which is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as being available for streaming on Amazon. Huntress is the story of a young Kazakh girl named Aisholpan who is determined to follow in her father's footsteps and become a champion eagle hunter, a sport traditionally reserved for males. Keep in mind that in her culture, "eagle hunting" doesn't refer to stalking and killing eagles, but rather using female golden eagles to hunt other animals. Think falconry, but instead of a lithe peregrine (maybe 3 pounds and a wingspan of 42 inches), adult golden eagles weigh about 15 pounds and have a wingspan approaching seven feet. This is a tremendous bird, with supremely sharp talons the size of a man's hand. As is common among raptors, the females are larger than the males, and females are exclusively used among eagle hunters. Furthermore, the birds are captured from the wild, a hazardous endeavor, considering the terrain, the fact that eaglets must be captured in the incredibly short window when they are old enough to survive away from the nest, but not yet able to fly, and the mother eagle's understandable reluctance to let humans ransack her nest.

Oh, and did I mention that eagle hunting is done while riding a sturdy steppe pony, often in weather conditions that put the "dead" in "dead of winter"?

Yes - this is not a sport for the weekend warrior.

Eagle hunting is a prestige sport among the people inhabiting the Altai Mountains in the harsh and rocky land where China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia meet. Involving massive amounts of patience, strength (you try holding your arm steady while a grown golden eagle uses it as a perch), and discipline, to be a champion eagle hunter is to be a man among men in this society that once unleashed Genghis Khan on the world. There were some elders who actively disapproved of a girl encroaching on this near-sacred territory and Huntress shows not just Aisholpan's determination, but that of her parents as well.

There was some grumbling that the movie involved staged scenes (like that's never been used in a documentary before! See this link), but director Otto Bell has resolutely denied those accusations. A few scenes seem to involve a Go Pro being worn by Aisholpan (and once by an eagle!), but Bell is adamant that the scenes unfolded as they unfolded.

As a protagonist, Aisholpan is completely delightful. Her parents clearly exemplify the universal ideal of wanting your children to achieve their potential, while also worrying that they might be moving too fast for the world in which they live. The film contains any number of thrillingly-beautiful shots and there is a definite story of triumph being told here. And yes, that's Daisy Ridley of the new Star Wars serving as both a producer and the narrator.

Go see it - you'll cheer.