Saturday, March 28, 2015

Insurgent - Timid New World

"The Divergent Series: Insurgent" is not a movie any parent would be afraid of their teenager watching.  It is safe, inoffensive Young Adult entertainment, carefully managed to be as blandly competent as possible.  I cannot imagine the book series by Veronica Roth is all that more compelling.  The marketing around this title is "The Hunger Games" but with even less teeth, a gray harmless fiction, enjoyed mostly by kids who do not know any better.  God help the YA industry when these kids discover that Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert A. Heinlein exist.  We can only dream of the day that all of these baby's first SciFi novels and their film adaptations end up in the trash where they belong.

I did not even bother reviewing the first film in this series, "Divergent" when it came out last year.  I assumed that the movie would be turgid floppy mediocrity.  But I made another assumption:  that nobody else would care.  These days with advertising campaigns so heavily manufactured on social media, I do not know if people legitimately like the Divergent Series or if it is just inflated manipulation.  Certainly "Insurgent" has had the most intense marketing of the year so far.  You cannot escape this film even if you want to not care.  So last week I finally bothered to watch "Divergent 1" - which turned out be everything I expected:  competent but forgettable.  Let's discuss the sequel.

"Insurgent" takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago just up the road from "The Hunger Games"' PanAm.  This is Dystopian Society No. #3442*, where all of humanity is segmented into five different clans based upon their role.  No created universe is complete without long complicated world-building details that ultimately add very little depth to the overall simplistic plotline.  Each clan has an elaborate stylish name, such as the Amnity who are hippie Amish farmers or the Dauntless who are soldiers or the Candor who are scum-sucking lawyers.  Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a former Abnegation, the boring gray bureaucrats, who changed her Job Class to Dauntless.  But ut-oh, she's actually a Divergent, the special magical Chosen One who does not fit into any of the categories.  So she is wanted by the evil Erudites, the wicked science class, who need her to open a McGuffin Box to complete their scheme to conquer the Factions, and naturally is also the only one who can stop their plans.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Frozen Fever - Do You Want to Build a Cash Cow?

A fevers is an immune response to an infection within the body, raising your temperature to burn out the disease and supercharge your immune system.  'Infection' is probably a good way of putting the deluge of "Frozen" media and the resulting pop culture obsession.  Every child in America has been brainwashed into loving this movie and watching it constantly on repeat on DVD (or whatever people use to watch movies now).  Even I am a victim in loving that movie for having great music, memorable characters, and an original perspective on Disney Princesses.  I am a slave to the magic of Elsa and Anna.*

"Frozen Fever" is the short film that Disney released with their live-action feature length, "Cinderella".  This is a short so profoundly awful that I am starting to wonder if maybe I should join the growing chorus of "Frozen" haters.  Do you remember those straight-to-VHS 90s sequels that Disney used to puke out, whoring their movies to the lowest and slimiest of cheap cash-ins?  This is that, but luckily only five minutes long.  Consider this on the same artistic level of "Cinderella III: A Twist in Time" - with heavy incest subtext.

The story this time is that it is Anna's eighteenth birthday and now that she is legal, Elsa is putting in way too much trouble to make her birthday special.  The plan is an elaborate "date" (their words, not mine) around town, following a red string of fate to various gifts, including a big sandwich.  Elsa puts in so much effort that she gives herself a fever and then acts very drunk and loose.  During a mediocre song the Snow Queen starts sneezing, creating little baby snowmen creatures, who mostly pop around and do nothing.  Then Anna takes Elsa to bed, gives her personal loving care, and they admit it was the best birthday ever.  Then begins the filthiest, loudest lesbian sex scene since "Blue is the Warmest Color".

"Frozen Fever" is forgettable.  This exists for no reason other than to blatantly reuse left-over models from the original.  A shot of Anna in bed with messy hair has been exactly copy-pasted from the 2013 movie.  It isn't funny, I forgot the song featured in this short almost instantly, it has nothing to add to the story.  Disney has made plenty of silly and lively "Toy Story" shorts, yet they failed entirely with this "Frozen" cash-in.  "Frozen Fever" is enough to make you worried about "Frozen 2", because it seems they have already run out of ideas for these characters and this universe.  Seriously guys, unless you're going for an NC-17 rating, you had one good movie, please do not spoil it.

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* I dare you, no double-dog dare you to make a joke about 'Letting it Go'.  Just try me.

Cinderella - Where Cynicism Goes to Die

Goddammit, Disney.

"Cinderella", the original 1950 animated film is as pure and beloved as a Golden Age Disney classic should be.  Attempting to remake that movie is hopeless, you are inevitably going to lose by comparison.  So is there any particular new twist one can put on the original fairy tale in order to do something new with the concept that has not been done before?  Well, if you want to be slightly more realistic and try to add more feminine agency into the story, you have the 1998 film "Ever After" starring Drew Barrymore.  If you want to make it spunky and comedic, there is the 2004 Anne Hathaway movie "Ella Enchanted".  If you're going to deconstruct the story you have "Into the Woods".  I guess that leaves only disturbing body horror, but unfortunately the Koreans have that covered too.*

Kenneth Branagh solves the artistic question of his new "Cinderella" movie by doing nothing new at all.  All the other moves in this live action fairy tale wave that we have been riding for about four years now have had some new idea going into them, be it ripping off Twilight for "Red Riding Hood" or giving the villain the title role for "Maleficent".  Branagh will not have that, he's going to have his ball, glass slippers and all.  He looks Walt Disney in the face, and says "yes, I am going to take you down, old mustachio'd rumored-to-be-antisemitic man.  I'm going to remake your movie on your terms, and I might even do it better.  Once more into the breach, dear friends!"

Therefore 2015's new "Cinderella" movie has no particular reason to exist.  It does not offer a new perspective, it has nothing new to say about the story that Walt did not already say, it cannot justify its existence in any way.  So it doesn't matter what this movie does, it has to suck by definition.  Yeah, the characters can be charming, the mood can be reverential and endearing, the pacing could be perfect, and the art style immaculate but I have to hate this movie because it says nothing and means nothing.  So I will go kicking and screaming into this review, gritting my teeth while I admit bitterly that "Cinderella" is a great movie.  Even though I hate the entire for it, the fact is that Branagh actually pulled it off, making the first truly memorable and great film of this year.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Super Smash Bros. 4 - Royalty Rumble

Once upon a time, fighting games were cruel, unforgiving titles only for the hardest of the hardcore gamer.  Games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Darksiders, and countless others were not mere entertainment:  they were battles to the digital death.  No nonsense, no tricks, just two players both at peak physical condition battling each other for glory.  These were games that required training under elderly sages in hidden Tibetan temples.  All so that you could master obscure combinations of buttons that might fire off a special attack.  Long hours of introspection under waterfalls to uncover the emotional discipline to pull off unbreakable combos would leave unprepared children feeling in tears from the arcade cabinets.

That all ended in 1999.  That year Nintendo unleashed a little party fighting game on the Nintendo 64, featuring cameos from its greatest and most profitable gaming series.  Mario, Link, Pikachu, Samus, and others battled in four-on-four matches in sprawling stages.  Special moves were pulled off with the ease of pressing B and a direction, making fighting games accessible to any newbie.  Rather than the deadly concentration of a black belt, "Super Smash Bros." rewarded luck, randomness, and cleverness.  The best player did not necessarily have to win, rather it was the one that grabbed the right item and could best manipulate the situation.  There were still plenty of frames to skip, physics exploits to learn, and combos.  But "Smash Bros." was above all the People's fighting game.

Super Smash Bros. has thrived and grown in popularity with each passing console generation, adding as many new fans as it adds characters to its roster.  The other fighting games now sit either growing more niche or more desperate for attention.  At this point the Smash Bros series is the only fighting series that really matters anymore.  So when a new game in the series comes out, it is not some small release, it is an epic event that tops out any new Nintendo console.  "Super Smash Bros. for Wii U" and "Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS" are two games with very long titles.  They are also the newest games in the Smash series, and thanks to their royal bloodlines, now rule the fighting game world by default.  But does heritage alone merit this domination?  Are they worthy of their throne?

(I'll save you the suspense:  Yes.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

CHAPPiE - Going Into Reruns

Neill Blomkamp's career is starting to fall on a very thin line between "unique personal style" and "just making the same stupid movie over and over again".  When his first film, the South African apartheid metaphor hiding within an alien SciFi film, "District 9" came out, his work was fresh and new.  His love of grungy shantytown backgrounds and practical-looking mechanic designs was fascinating.  Then he made the far dumber "Elysium"*, also about dirty brown slums and greasy machinery melees.  Blomkamp is now breaking exciting new ground with "CHAPPiE", a movie about a stark robotic creature fighting angry South Africans in a filthy favela.  I'm noticing a pattern here, I think.

But am I being fair right now by implying that Blomkamp can only make one kind of film?  Certainly I could not ask David Cronenberg to stop making movies fetishizing the corruption of the flesh and the thin line between life and death.  So if Blomkamp really cannot do anything more than rusting heavy metal action in dusty ruins, recreating the final fight scene from "District 9" three times now, does he get an excuse?  If his imagination cannot conjure up a better villain than a redneck with a serious temper problem, can I fault him for that?  Well, maybe I can.  Other directors would try branching out to new styles, to new genres, and new stories.  It doesn't look like Blomkamp is going to be leaving the Townships or greasy technopunk any time soon.

Maybe I would be more forgiving if Blomkamp were more consistent.  "CHAPPiE" is a difficult movie to actually rate as a whole.  It is hard to go wrong with a movie about a cute robot with the mind of a child learning about the world around him and overcoming angry soldiers with bad mullets.  Yet Blomkamp balances out that good with bland characters regurgitated from his previous films.  Not one human in this story is particularly likable.  Then there is a surprisingly bloated and weirdly complicated plot for what should be a straightforward film.  "CHAPPiE" is easily Blomkamp's messiest film in terms of construction, a tragically ironic flaw for a creator so in love with engineering.