Category Archives: Film

From Up on Poppy Hill

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From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.

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Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.

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A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.

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The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).

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Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.


My Neighbor Totoro

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.

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No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.

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A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.

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Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.

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Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.

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Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.


Logan

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Logan (2017)

A popular “gotcha” question from when I was a kid concerning comic books and the X-Men was, “What’s Wolverine’s mutant power?” The desired response was a reference to his claws, at which point one could interject with a “Nuh-uh! It’s his mutant healing factor!” Of course, later in the 90’s it would be revealed that his claws actually were a part of his mutation, thus putting an end to that one, but it was always kind of a stupid piece of trivia anyway. Wolverine’s defining trait are his claws, the healing stuff was just a way to excuse the beating he took in the pages of Incredible Hulk and X-Men. If he didn’t have those unbreakable claws, he probably never would have become the most popular member of the X-Men.

And yet, Wolverine’s claws were always a bit of an obstacle for comic writers and artists, and eventually animators and film makers as well. You have this violent, bad ass character, equipped with blades that can cut through almost anything, but he really can’t use them because of the obvious gore factor that would involve. Instead, Wolverine would often use the claws for show, deflect some attacks, cling to walls, cut through a fence, and everyone’s favorite – hack up some robots. That’s why it’s particularly liberating to see Wolverine go all out in the opening moments of Logan.

To a newcomer, or even someone who has just fancied themselves a casual fan, the violence and gore present in Logan will seem over the top, perhaps juvenile. The R rating the movie garnered may be viewed in a cynical fashion to appease young males who want f-bombs and blood out of their movies. For those who have been with this character since their childhood though, it’s a stark reveal of just who Wolverine is. This is the Wolverine we hear about from other characters, spoken of in hushed tones and feared by his enemies. This is a superhero who’s primary offense, and defense, is to just start hacking. And since this is applied to an older, very cynical, Wolverine we get a character who doesn’t operate in half measures – if you get in his way and threaten him or those who cares about, Wolverine won’t hesitate to remove your face from your skull.

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If you’ve always wanted to see Wolverine do this, then Logan will make you very happy.

Logan is a film set some 15 years or so in the future. It’s not a dystopian world or a wasteland. There are no flying cars or laser rifles, the setting is just an excuse to take a look at an aging, dying, Wolverine. When the film opens we see Wolverine has taken on a very mundane job as a limo driver. He walks with a limp, is an apparent alcoholic, and his wounds don’t close as quickly as they used to. When he’s not working, he’s scoring drugs and hopping the Mexican border where his perhaps only friends are hiding out:  Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). The drugs Wolverine purchases are for Xavier, who’s past the ninety-year mark and struggling to keep his wits about him. When the world’s most dangerous telepath can’t control his old brain bad stuff can happen. Wolverine is apparently saving up some cash to buy a houseboat where he and Xavier can live out the rest of their days without fear of harming anyone, or anyone bothering them (in the case of Wolverine).

Wolverine’s day to day life is disrupted when a borderline hysterical woman (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) comes seeking his aid. Offering a substantial amount of money, she wishes for Wolverine to smuggle her and her daughter into Canada. Wolverine wants nothing to do with her, apparently not wanting any trouble. Soon a young man barges into his limo looking for info on the woman. He is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and we know from his demeanor and bad-ass cybernetic hand that he is certainly a bad dude and probably what the young woman is running from. Upon hearing this, Xavier naturally wants to help the woman as he senses a mutant presence, Caliban smells it as well (his mutant power). This is a big deal as there hasn’t been a mutant born in this world in over twenty years. Wolverine is sort of conned into helping the woman, and things get messy before they get any better.

Since she’s featured so heavily in the promotion, and the film makes little attempt to create any mystery about it, I might as well continue along and talk about Laura (Dafne Keen), the young mutant Wolverine and Co. end up taking in. Laura, known as X-23 in the comics, is a young girl with a very familiar set of powers and abilities, and also temperament. She is referred to by other characters as Wolverine’s daughter, but it might be more accurate to call her his clone. She’s on the run in search of a place called Eden and is running from Pierce and the people responsible for her existence. After the lengthy setup, the film turns into a road movie with Wolverine, Laura, and Xavier.

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Jackman and Stewart are just beautiful in their portrayals of Logan and Xavier.

Logan is not a feel good movie, and it doesn’t offer much mystery. I found myself anticipating almost every beat the film hits, but I also didn’t care. The world of Logan is harsh and unfriendly, but there are small moments to break up the grim that either provide humor or just a small slice of life. Xavier and Laura make for a fun pair and easily form a warm relationship, even if Laura is essentially mute. Perhaps to the surprise of some, Xavier is the character most often relied upon for comic relief. He and Wolverine clash well, but underneath the surface conflict it’s obvious the two love and respect each other. Wolverine is a surrogate son of sorts to this version of Xavier, and waits on him like a doting son, though he seems to take some enjoyment in complaining about it every step of the way. The relationship feels very authentic, which is a word that kept coming to me as I took in this picture. Patrick Stewart comes across as especially authentic as Xavier. There’s a scene where the trio sits down to dinner with some strangers and Stewart plays Xavier in a way that’s reminiscent of every dinner I’ve ever had with an elderly person I had only just met. He’s delighted to speak with someone other than his irritable traveling companion, but his performance never teeters on parody.

Hugh Jackman is a captivating Wolverine in this film. I suppose that comes as no surprise since he’s been playing this character for almost twenty years now (the same can be said of Stewart). Jackman worked with director/writer James Mangold on the story, loosely adapted from the Old Man Logan story from the comics. It’s clear from interviews with Jackman that this was an important film for him and an important story for him to have a part in telling as Wolverine, for it’s to be his last turn as the character. The Wolverine of this film is best described as the exact assumption most would have of an old man Wolverine. All of his lesser traits -his irritability, cynicism, vices and so on have only been strengthened by father time. He’s still a good guy inside, but his pessimism makes him more of an introvert than he’s ever been. The film doesn’t dwell on the past, but it makes it obvious that all of the X-Men are dead. This is a Wolverine who has lost everything. He doesn’t want to start over, he’d rather just die. He’s pulled through this movie by other characters as well as his inner sense of duty, but it’s a struggle. The film tells this story through action and not so much dialogue. In doing so, Mangold is able to avoid a lot of the tropes that plague other films attempting to tell a similar story.

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I wonder where she gets it from…

Laura proves to be a compelling character in her own right. Portrayed by newcomer Dafne Keen, Laura is a wide-eyed girl experiencing the world for the first time. Everything is interesting and new to her, and Keen is forced to tell us what Laura is thinking through her actions alone while also being restricted from changing her usual stoic facial expression. She’s a fun character to watch when the film slows down, but also a sad character during the action sequences when we are forced to watch a young girl brutally eviscerate other people with cold precision. She’s in a way been denied humanity, while also being denied a childhood. Again, Mangold does a great job of just putting this out there in the film without editorializing it. We don’t need a character to tell us now depressing her upbringing was. The film slowly gives us more and more of the Laura character and it’s one of the few aspects that feels rewarding. I would guess most people will leave the theater wanting to see more of this character in the future.

All of this is to say the movie isn’t perfect. Like most superhero pictures, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. While there are no obvious scenes that could have been axed, the film does move slowly and if an editor had been ordered to keep the runtime under two hours they probably could have found a way without much compromise. The film is also so centered on Wolverine and Laura that the antagonists feel like after-thoughts at times. And as I mentioned, it is very predictable and there is a sequence in the middle of the movie that bothered me as a result because the characters should have been able to see the danger up ahead.

The flaws within Logan are minor and do little to bring down what some are calling the best superhero movie yet. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, as Logan could function as any kind of movie if you took away the super powers. The film isn’t centered on a conflict of good vs evil with the fate of the world in the balance. It’s a character driven film, and for people who have considered themselves fans of the Wolverine character, this is probably the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s a film for those who appreciate the essence of what makes Wolverine special, and it’s able to present the character in an authentic way without devolving into a ton of fan service. More importantly, this is also clearly a worthy story for Jackman to go out on. This is his finest performance not just as Wolverine, but of any film I’ve seen him in, and I assume that was the personal goal of Jackman going into it. I was totally fine with this being Jackman’s last time playing Wolverine, but once the credits started rolling I must admit I was starting to wish for more, and as they say in show business, always leave them wanting more.


X-Men: Apocalypse

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X-Men:  Apocalypse (2016)

No Marvel property has had a more up and down relationship with the silver screen than the X-Men. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because at least it hasn’t been all down like the Fantastic Four, but it is frustrating for those who love the X-Men property. The first film was one of the early superhero films that launched this new found romance between Hollywood and Marvel, which also helped open the door to DC as well. That first film hit on a lot of what makes the X-Men unique, though it sacrificed action and plot in devoting so much of the film to setup. The second film seemed to better encapsulate what X-Men could be, but made some changes and decisions that felt rushed and short-sighted. Still, it was successful and the best X-Men film for a long time. Following X-Men 2, director Bryan Singer departed the franchise for Superman, and Brett Ratner came on to direct X-Men:  The Last Stand, a hot mess that at least had the decency to keep the run time down.

Following The Last Stand, Fox went away from their mutant franchise but did allow Wolverine to get his own terrible solo film. Seeing Marvel have success with other franchises without Fox likely helped bring the X-Men back with the Mathew Vaughn helmed X-Men: First Class. First Class was a new beginning for the franchise, though a confusing one as the continuity between it and the original trilogy seemed non-comittal at best. Was it a prequel? A reboot? Vaughn was one and done, and having not directed much worth discussing since X-Men 2, Singer took over for Days of Future Past, which further muddled the continuity between this new series and the original. Days of Future Past was a fun time travel piece. It also helped that it was adapting one of the most popular plots from the classic X-Men stories. It reunited the new cast with the old, and the conclusion seemed to reset the franchise as the heroes successfully changed the future leading the viewer to assume what happened in the original trilogy was basically undone, or at least severely altered, freeing this new franchise from further continuity scrutiny.

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Apocalypse with his two horsewomen Storm and Psylocke.

X-Men:  Apocalypse gives us a second completed trilogy, though one that clearly sets up for another X-Men film. It adapts the popular villain, Apocalypse, for the movie-going audience for the first time. Apocalypse is a tough sell in live-action. In the comics, his giant persona complete with big “A” belt buckle and blue lips somehow works, but viewed outside of that context looks ridiculous. His powers in the books began as being a kind of shape-shifter, with the emphasis placed on his ability to increase in size. Since his debut in the pages of X-Factor, Apocalypse has been retconned numerous times and his powers expanded to the point where it’s probably easier to just say that they’re undefined – he can do almost anything. As a plot device, he’s interesting in the sense that he’s a third alternative to the Xavier/Magneto world view. Xavier wants humans and mutants to co-exist, while Magneto wants to establish mutant supremacy. Apocalypse just wants to kill everybody and let the strong survive. He wants to rule over all as a god-like being. It makes sense for one who calls himself Apocalypse, though it’s not always interesting.

Despite that, I’ve mostly enjoyed Apocalypse as a foil as sometimes it’s nice to have one villain in a hero’s rogue’s gallery that’s just plain evil. I never really expected to see him in a film, but if he had been brought over, I expected him to be heavily altered to ground him a bit more. To my surprise, Singer and company did no such thing with Apocalypse.

The film opens with a flashback to a ritual involving Apocalypse in Cairo. He’s being placed in the base of a pyramid, surrounded by his disciples and attendants, as they prepare a second person on a separate slab within the tomb. We learn shortly after that this is a ritual to transfer Apocalypse’s essence to a new host to allow him to continue to live for years upon years.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is explained later as the first mutant, who likely lived for centuries even before that flashback took place. He was worshipped as a god called En Sabah Nur, and the film actually never directly refers to him as Apocalypse. He’s yet another blue-skinned mutant with weird metal dreadlocks and vaguely Egyptian themed armor. Returning character Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) learned through research that he was the suspected first mutant, and each time he transferred to a new, mutant, host he would gain their powers. As a result, Apocalypse possesses numerous abilities that go very much undefined in the film. He’s portrayed similarly to Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan for much of the film, basically disintegrating people who get in his way without so much as a gesture. Other guys are melded into walls or the ground, and we also see him do some minor mind manipulation. He’s able to somehow sync with satellites to learn about the state of the world after awakening after thousands of years, and perhaps most importantly, is able to draw out the max potential of other mutants. He displays this by assembling his four horsemen:  Storm, Psylocke, Archangel, and eventually Magneto.

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Jean, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops are expected to shoulder some of the load in this film, but aren’t given adequate character development to really let them sine.

Now, I’m not one for spoilers when reviewing films. It strikes me as lazy, but I’m going to kind of spoil something in this paragraph as it relates to Magneto (Michael Fassbender). We see him with Apocalypse in all of the promotional imagery, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to point that out. When we first see Magneto in the film though, he’s married with a daughter and working in a steel mill in Poland. He has a conversation with his daughter before she goes to bed about how his parents were taken from him, and assures her the same won’t befall her. The film could not have telegraphed what’s to follow any more implicitly than that. Again, I don’t mean to spoil anything, but obviously something bad happens which leads Magneto to Apocalypse and I felt irritated by the whole setup. Did we really need Magneto to be, once again, re-motivated to take on humanity? When we left him in Days of Future Past, he really had no reason to change his ways and could have been left as a sulking, angry, and determined adversary for the X-Men without the need for additional motivation.

I suppose I should just cut to the chase and say I did not like this movie. Apocalypse doesn’t work as a villain. He has the personality of a natural disaster. His motivations are vague and uninteresting. They appear to be mostly in-line with his comic book motivations, but I don’t know how much of that is me filling in the blanks with what I know from that medium or the film actually earning that conclusion. His supporting cast is even less interesting as there’s really no character development devoted to his followers. He’s also absurdly over-powered, to the point where it’s not really believable when he (spoiler?) eventually fails to bring death and destruction to the world.

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Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver to basically do the same thing he did in Days of Future Past, only with an 80’s soundtrack this time.

None of that is the fault of actor Oscar Isaac, he does about as well as he can with what the script and screenplay give him. And as far as X-Men scripts go, X-Men: Apocalypse hits a new low. When it’s not having its characters spout tired cliches, it’s having them say nothing much at all or clumsily setting up whats to come, as if we need the film to help foreshadow anything. James McAvoy returns as Charles Xavier and he probably comes off the best, as Xavier is pretty easy to write. He’s paired often with Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who’s pushed into a starring role, probably not because her character is suited for such, but most likely because of how her star has risen since First Class. Mystique is poorly suited to be so front and center in the story as she’s clumsily written. Her motivations change so quickly and effortlessly you would think Xavier is mentally controlling her. The same can be said for Magneto.

New additions to the cast include younger versions of mutants featured in the original trilogy:  Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Cyclops and his relationship with brother Alex/Havok (Lucas Till) is fit into the film by being the younger brother, instead of the older one as he was in the comics. His struggle to control his optic blast mutant power is kind of glossed over and not really dwelled on as Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) presents him with his special glasses pretty quickly. He’s a pretty terrible character who’s primary motivation is apparently skipping out on class to go to the mall – how 80’s! Jean is portrayed rather predictably as the girl scared of her own powers. She has a vision of the coming apocalypse which is what gets the X-Men involved in seeking out more information on En Sabah Nur. Smit-Mcphee’s Nightcrawler is easily my favorite addition to the cast. He’s depicted the same as he was in X-Men 2, visually speaking, and he’s kind of cautious and quirky and is an obvious gentle soul not suited for violence. His religious beliefs are not front and center, but he is shown praying at one point.

The film mostly suffers by just being uninteresting, and it runs over two hours in length. Even at such a length, the plot moves relatively fast as it relates to Apocalypse who just teleports wherever he wants. There’s a pointless detour taken when the X-Men collide with the military and an old foe from the past film, which seems to exist only to setup a soulless cameo. The film builds towards a confrontation with Apocalypse in which we’re supposed to care about the new recruits taking center stage, but we have so little invested in them that it just feels hollow, not to mention expected. The film also wastes the 80’s setting, really not using it for anything other than a few jokes that were probably too obvious for That 80’s Show. Worse, it feels rather forced since none of the characters look like they’ve aged the twenty or so years that have past since First Class.

The resolution is a foregone conclusion from the start, and we’re left with a big, empty, action film that didn’t really need to be an X-Men film. So little of what makes the X-Men special as a property is encapsulated here, and what is feels like retread. I was checking the time an hour into this one, and I couldn’t wait to be done with it and had to struggle through the credits to see the epilogue, which did little to excite me for another film. It feels like Singer is just setting up to tell a story he missed out on with his first go-around with the series, though I have no idea if a next film is a guarantee. Most of the contracts with the heavy hitters likely need to be renegotiated, and what incentive is there for some of them to return? I suppose they could get by without Magneto, since he felt shoe-horned into this film to begin with, but Mystique was positioned as the leader of the X-Men so I don’t know how they get out of that if Lawrence has no interest in reprising her role.

In the end, I’m left to say “who cares?” where a next film is concerned. We already have the reported excellence of Logan to indulge with, and another X-Men film will need to be tackled by people who have the motivation to craft a worthwhile story that begs to be told. Apocalypse did not do that, I don’t think it killed the franchise, but it did bring it back to where it was following The Last Stand. If X-Men Origins: Wolverine is excluded, this is the worst X-Men film yet. I’d rather watch The Last Stand because it at least has an interesting plot, if poorly executed, and it’s a hell of a lot shorter. Like The Last Stand, I find myself not really caring where the franchise goes from here, or if it continues at all, and that’s a pretty poor lasting impression for X-Men:  Apocalypse.


NECA Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Donatello

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“Ohhh pizza! I need it!”

2016 did something I never expected (well, it did many things I never expected); it brought me back to the action figure. And in particular, it brought me back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. First, it was Bandai with its line based on the animated series from the 1980s, then NECA finally released its own take on The Shredder from the original comic (I never reviewed it here because I decided to keep it in box). Now, NECA has done it again with its 1/4th scale Donatello based on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

And my reaction to this figure could be summed up in two words:  Holy shit!

I’ve been collection action figures off and on since I was a kid, going on probably 25 years. It started with toys I would play with that most kids my age had, and then became more for a hobby with toys that would just sit on a shelf, desk, or other surface. In that time, I’ve acquired some pretty awesome toys. I’ve got a Hot Toys Batman based on The Dark Knight film that is incredible to behold, and was also incredibly expensive. In its short existence, Irwin Toys made some premium scale Dragon Ball Z figures that look excellent, and Toy Biz did the same with the Marvel properties in its Legends and Icons line. Nothing I’ve acquired though has nailed a likeness as well as Neca has with its movie-inspired Donatello.

For starters, this is a quarter-scale figure so he’s big, and the size means he should be highly detailed. I don’t typically dig figures of this size, especially now with my house becoming cluttered with the toys of small children, but I made an exception for this figure. The source material, as mentioned previously, is the original 1990 film which is by far the best film based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It might actually be the best thing based on the franchise excluding the original comic. This is actually pretty unique as no action figures before have really strived to capture the look of that first film. That’s partly due to the sequel, The Secret of the Ooze, being fast-tracked to theaters to strike before the fad died out. The sequel was probably more popular due to its lighter tone and more playful nature, making it more reminiscent of the cartoon. It’s possible Playmates, the toy company basically created for TMNT, just didn’t have time to get a line out for both films so they just went with the sequel for its movie line of figures (which were pretty awesome for the time). Even the newer lines done by Playmates based on the films are clearly more influenced by the sequel than the original, so right off the bat, Neca has done something no other toy company has done before.

For a first figure (naturally, the other turtles are on the way) in the line, Donatello is a great choice because he, more than the others, had a distinct look in the first film not captured by the second. His face is a little scrunched, his beak kind of pointy, and the ends of his mouth curl in a way the other turtles don’t. He’d sport a more rounded look in the sequel, and was noticeably taller too. This version of Donatello was always my favorite though. And a really unsung aspect of that original film is how all four turtles had a unique look. If viewed in black and white, it was still easy to point out which turtle was which because they each had their own face and proportions, like people.

This Donatello though, is so spot-on it continues to amaze me every time I look at him. The head sculpt is dead-on and his eyes are expressive and life-like. The shape of his bandana is perfect, and the ends of which are fabric and have enough weight that they hang just as they do in the film. The skin texture is also perfect and captures the look of the film so wonderfully. For me as a kid, that was the biggest difference in going from cartoon to live action as the cartoon never caused me to wonder how the turtles would really look in the real world. The faux leather of the belt and various pads looks superb, and the wash on his shell and chest captures the griminess of the film. This is, after all, a character who resides in a sewer. I had some minor concerns about the look of the figure when looking at the promotional images, but in person it looks great. Part of the disconnect, I think, is due to the characters almost always being in darkness in the film and rarely in a warmly lit location. When I walk into the room I keep this figure in at dusk and I see him it’s like he’s just jumping right out of one of those scenes.

Even though Donatello is huge (roughly 16″), he still sports basically the same articulation as Neca’s smaller figures. There’s still the issue of a bulky shell to work around, so there’s going to be some limitations inherent in a TMNT figure, but you still get double-elbows, ball joints everywhere, and ankle swivels. There is an ab crunch hidden behind that shell which allows for some upper body movement, and the bulky elbow pads do hinder articulation some, but for the most part the figure is pretty solid in that regard. Neca used ratchet joints in places to help the figure support its own weight. This does mean he’s a little hard to pose right out of the box, requiring some play, but it also means he can stand on one foot if you so desire.

Neca also saw fit to include some accessories with our dear friend Donnie. Mostly, these take the form of extra hands, seven total. He’s got hands for holding his bo staff, an open hand for Cowabunga, and twin thumbs-up. He’s got another slightly open hand for holding his other accessories: a slice of pizza and a canister of ooze. The pizza looks good enough to eat, and even resembles the pizza Mikey orders early in the movie. The ooze canister has a small crack, as opposed to being broken in two, making it very specific to the first film (in the second, it’s in two pieces and reads TGRI instead of TCRI, as it does here). Of course, Donatello comes with his signature bo staff which he can hold pretty effortlessly and also has holsters for on his belt. Really, the only thing missing is an extra head with his open smile from the cover of the VHS box. With that, he’d be able to properly do his “Excellent!” pose from the beginning. It’s understandable that Neca only did one head for each turtle given it would probably add considerable cost, but it would have been awesome if they found a way.

In short, if it isn’t already apparent, I love this toy. It might be my new favorite (until the Leonardo one comes out anyways) as it’s just so perfect. I do wish Neca could have achieved the same in a smaller scale, but apparently that’s impossible due to how their license is constructed. Maybe that won’t be true always, but I’d be really hesitant about holding out for a smaller scale and risk missing out on these figures. The price is steep ($100 MSRP) compared to other Neca products, though far less than Hot Toys and other premium action figures despite being of basically the same quality. I am definitely all-in on this series and can’t wait to complete the quartet.


12 Films of Christmas #1: A Christmas Story

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A Christmas Story (1983)

A lot of people have attempted to define Christmas over the years, but if you ask a child it’s all about Santa Claus and presents. We can tell our kids it’s about more than that. It’s about the giving, not the receiving, but they’ll never buy it. They may pay us lip-service thinking that by saying the right thing Santa will bring them more presents, but we know how they truly feel. And really, it’s no big deal because as they get older they’ll find new ways to look at Christmas and come around to the family and giving aspects of the holiday. While they’re kids though, lets let them be kids.

Everyone probably can recall that one Christmas gift they really wanted above all others. Hopefully, many did eventually get that, though I have a feeling most of those girls asking Santa for a pony went wanting on Christmas Day (I’d ask for a dog and never get it, but by then I was kind of wise to the whole Santa thing; I did get a turtle though). I have one, and for me it was a Super Nintendo. The SNES was released in 1991 and some of my cousins and friends received one from Santa that year. I did not, so come Christmas ’92 I was really itching for one and felt Santa was my only hope. When Christmas came, I snuck up early in the morning to scope out the loot. I was actually pretty happy with the toys I received, but there was no SNES. I returned to bed partially defeated, but truly looking on the bright side. When it was finally an acceptable hour to get up, I returned to the tree and tore into my gifts with my sister. When my parents got up, my dad made a remark about how he was surprised I wasn’t playing with a certain gift. Then he started looking around, and gestured towards the kitchen table which was probably six feet away from where the tree was setup. Tucked between the table leg and wall was my Super Nintendo, and I was overjoyed.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s practically the same experience Ralphie enjoys at the end of A Christmas Story when he finds his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun tucked behind a desk after thinking Santa had forgot the one gift he wanted most. It’s a charming tale about want, which sounds shallow on the surface, but after spending some 80 minutes with Ralphie throughout the picture we come to feel he deserves it and we’re all rooting for him to get that air rifle, even if it means he might shoot his eye out.

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The Parker Family

Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is like most kids. He has the same problems as anyone like school work, bullies, and looking after his kid-brother Randy (Ian Petrella). The film is narrated by Jean Shepherd as adult Ralphie, and was written by him as well, and the whole story is essentially one long flashback. Ralphie’s mother (Melinda Dillon) is his main obstacle towards getting what he wants as she deems a BB gun as too dangerous, uttering the film’s famous line “You’ll shoot your eye out,” upon hearing of her son’s desire. Ralphie’s dad, often referred to as the Old Man and played by Darren McGavin, seems indifferent to the plights of the family, unless the kids are acting up. He’s more consumed with his paper, fighting a never ending battle with the furnace, and his hick neighbors pack of hound dogs that seem only interested in harassing him, and no one else.

A lot of subplots carry the picture as we move towards Christmas. There’s the famous scene at the flagpole where Ralphie’s friends settle a debate over whether or not a tongue can stick to metal in the cold. There’s the Old Man’s “major award” that starts a cold war of sorts in the Parker household. A mall Santa steals a scene, and Ralphie’s potty mouth takes center stage for a memorable scene as well and we all learn about which soap tastes the best. Ralphie is often on the receiving end of some minor misfortune in many of these scenes, which only helps to make him feel more sympathetic. The film never strays too far towards this masochistic persona by making the viewer feel almost depressed for the poor kid, it mostly just reminds us of what it was like growing up.

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Not all gifts are winners.

The film is loaded with humor. Some of it is subtle and worked into the dialogue, some of it is ironic, and some of it is gag reliant. Ralphie’s daydreams are appropriately corny since they’re coming from the mind of a child and provide for the most obvious scenes of comedy in the film. The previously mentioned major award, a novelty lamp resembling a woman’s leg in a cocktail dress, is so well-known these days that you can walk into a store and buy one. McGavin is especially funny in his role as the Old Man, often having big reactions when he’s angered and perfectly capturing what it means to be a parent around the holidays. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Dillon is equally as effective as Mrs. Parker. She so captures that classic image of a mother without feeling too cliche. When she screams “Ralphie” it really sounds like she’s been shouting it his whole life at her own son.

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It’s hard to pick a favorite scene in this one, and when Ralphie tries his luck with Santa is certainly in the running for best scene in the picture.

The film does a great job of giving Ralphie small victories along the way, making the payoff at the end feel especially effective and joyous. It’s a film that succeeds because it so understands how it felt to be a child around Christmas. It’s relatable for children watching it today, and gives adults a chance to look back on those years when we were a little like Ralphie. You only get a few years to really be a kid invested in the whole Santa Claus concept, since most have the fable spoiled before they leave elementary school. It’s nice to get a little taste of that each time I view A Christmas Story. It’s why I consider it my favorite Christmas film of all time.

If you’re looking to catch A Christmas Story this year then I have good news, as it will be airing on television when this post goes live on Christmas Day. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this feature, though I admit I hope most are reading this final entry after Christmas, though I suppose it could be bathroom material on Christmas Day just fine. I hope everyone is spending Christmas Day with friends and family and Merry Christmas from The Nostalgia Spot!

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12 Films of Christmas #2: Elf

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Elf (2003)

It’s pretty hard to come into an established industry with something new and find success.  And when it comes to holiday films and television specials, it seems like it’s especially hard. Sure, sometimes you get a Prep & Landing that really surprises, but mostly you get Shrek the Halls…

Jon Favreau is mostly known these days for directing the Iron Man films. In 2003, people may have mostly known him for his short-stint on the sitcom Friends when he played the boyfriend of Courtney Cox who wanted to be an ultimate fighting champion. He certainly wasn’t known for holiday films, but who knew he was about to preside over one of the best?

Elf, in some ways, follows one of my favorite Christmas formulas by adding to the legend of Santa Claus. It doesn’t add much, but gives us another look at how Santa goes about his business. It definitely gives us a peek at elf life. We learn their dietary habits, toy output, and that they actually make those toys that show up in department stores themselves (though I don’t know if we’re supposed to assume that all Etch-A-Sketch toys are made by elves). Mostly though, it tells the story of one elf:  Buddy. The twist is that Buddy is not actually an elf, but a human adopted by elves after he snuck into Santa’s sack one Christmas while Santa was visiting an orphanage.

Before getting to the meat of the story, I must say I definitely approve of the decision to model the elves and the North Pole after the look both have in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even the decor is that pale violet color that everything seemed to be cast in for that famous Christmas special. As a kid, it always annoyed me there was so little continuity between Christmas specials, even ones produced by Rankin/Bass. If I had seen this film as a six-year old I would have been even more delighted than I am as an adult.

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Ferrell is at his best when Favreau just lets him go nuts in a scene.

Now Buddy (Will Ferrell), is oblivious to the fact that he’s an elf even though he’s a lot bigger than his peers and can’t keep up with them in the toy-making field. It bums him out, and when he overhears the head elf (A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsly) speaking with another about how Buddy will probably never realizes he’s human, he goes running to Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) to find out if it’s true. Upon doing so, he decides to set out to find his real father, who impregnated his biological mother unknowingly and has since passed away. All of the elves, including Santa (Ed Asner) wish him well, but Santa also has a revelation to reveal: Buddy’s dad is on the naughty list!

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I’m digging the Rudolph inspired look of the film.

If you have not guessed by now, Elf is a pretty silly movie. After Buddy leaves the North Pole, it becomes a fish-out-of-water tale as he journeys to New York City to find his dad. Turns out his dad is the head of a children’s book publishing firm, and right away we see how he values profits above doing the right thing when he approves a book with no ending for publishing. Walter Hobbs (James Caan) is naturally shocked to find out he has a son he never knew about, and wants nothing to do with an adult who thinks he’s a Christmas elf. He also has a wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen), and a young son, Michael (Daniel Tay), who are equally dubious. Emily is the most receptive of Buddy, though Michael is more in-line with his dad in thinking the guy is nuts. Buddy also winds up in a department store where he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), and mistakes her for someone into elf culture since she has to dress-up as one for work.

Buddy has a hard time adjusting to life in New York and makes things difficult for those around him. He gradually gets people to come around to him, starting with Michael, then Jovie, and eventually even his old man. There’s of course a big blow-up scene between him and his father that has to be resolved before Buddy can then help Santa save Christmas. It’s all rather conventional, but the film always straddles the line between cheese and just plain good fun, and one gets the impression it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Given her get-up, it’s not hard to see why Buddy gets a little excited when he sees Jovie.

Will Ferrell is very charismatic as Buddy. He’s annoying, as most characters played by Ferrell are, but still charming due to his child-like and honest persona. I know many people who dislike Ferrell but are charmed by his Buddy character. Maybe it’s the Christmas factor, I’m not sure, but Buddy seems to be his most-liked role. Asner’s gruff take on Santa Claus works really well in the film’s climax. He feels authentic, even when spouting nonsense about needing more Christmas spirit to get his sleigh off the ground. He’s so matter-of-fact about it that it helps the audience to buy-into what the film is selling. Caan is prickly as Hobbs, but understandably so given what his character has to deal with. He possesses some Scrooge-like qualities in the sense that he’s a workaholic who clearly doesn’t spend enough time with his family (as illustrated by Michael’s lack of respect for him). He has to come around to Buddy, and see the importance of family. He does so in semi-believable way, but considering this film exists mostly for laughs, he doesn’t need to go through a Scrooge-like transformation that unfolds over entire acts.

Elf works so exceptionally well because it’s just a joyful film. There’s plenty of humor, and enough heart to give it purpose and provide that emotional pay-off most expect of a Christmas movie. It’s a movie that I return to every year, and every time I watch it I wonder to myself if this is my favorite Christmas movie. So few are able to handle comedy and sentimentality as deftly as Elf does. The Santa Clause has some laughs, but becomes cloyingly sweet at the end. Bad Santa is plenty hilarious, but doesn’t have really much of an emotional payoff. The Miracle on 34th Street has some chuckle-worthy moments, but is hardly a comedy. Elf is able to be both, which makes it the rare modern Christmas movie that is contention for being one of the best.