Monday, May 29, 2023


“Part of Your World” is the greatest Disney song of all time. Howard Ashman’s playful and emotive lyrics are perfectly matched by Alan Menken’s plaintive chord progressions. Together they tell the whole story—and literally nothing that follows can be said to lack the psychological grounding for an audience’s intensely felt sympathies. It’s a song that invites us into a girl’s yearning, in this case Ariel, a teenage mermaid who wants desperately to escape the provincial restrictions of her aquatic kingdom and learn something about the wide world above. “What’s a fire and why does it—what’s the word?—burn? When’s it my turn?…” she sings as the number reaches its emotional and melodic peak, dancing its rhymes around the word yearn without ever quite saying it, in a song that’s lyrically about the character’s lack of the vocabulary to fully express what she knows she doesn’t know. She’s yearning. And so are we. The song never fails to move me. Even the first few notes sets my tear ducts welling. They know what’s about to happen to me. And even though the story itself isn’t my total favorite of the Disney animated musicals, that it springs from this source makes me believe in it fully and completely in that moment. The grand symbolic romantic gestures of its thinly drawn prince and sparsely characterized kingdoms make sense only as outgrowths of this adolescent, and yet universal, need to grow and to know.

It seems to me that if someone’s going to remake Disney’s The Little Mermaid, they’d better get that exactly right. In the case of the company’s newest live-action adaptation of an animated classic, they get it right. Halle Bailey is in the lead role, and sells that need from the inner-most soul, her open, expressive face and reaching body language—paired with her lovely singing voice—communicate that combination of stifled curiosity and hopeful tension. Once that number happens, we’re on her side no matter what. The rest of the movie happens about how you’d expect, with her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, sleepily paternal) lashing out at her human curiosity, which sends her into the devious tentacles of Ursula the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy, in a passable karaoke performance). She’s gifted human form to woo the prince of her dreams (Jonah Hauer-King, handsomely anonymous). But the bad deal sends her ashore without her voice, leading to a romantic silent flirtation and much silliness from animal sidekicks, before it’s all resolved on a dark and stormy night. The adaptation lacks in surprise, and extends the story with a few new songs and added texture to the surface dwellers’ characters. But because it’s anchored so firmly to Ariel’s yearning, it maintains a certain dignity and investment.

The movie is, taken on its own terms, a fine fantasy musical. It has a sympathetic lead, a decently appealing romantic interest, and a handful of the best songs ever written for the screen. And yet, it’s difficult to take on its own terms, as difficult as it is to take any of these live action remakes of animated Disney musicals as an individual work of moviemaking. The former wouldn’t exist in this form if not for the latter. That makes it harder to look at the relatively lackluster staging of “Under the Sea” and, instead of enjoying the swirl of photo-realistic anemones and tortoises wriggling to the beat while the vaguely cartoony crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) croons, unconsciously compare it to the ecstatic joys of the zippy, gag-filled, color-explosion chorus number that is the original. Still, one can’t entirely resist the charms of such buoyant musical material, even at three-quarters the energy. (At least romantic classic "Kiss the Girl" has better staging.)

Director Rob Marshall, Chicago aside, usually bungles movie musicals—sorry, Mary Poppins Returns and Into the Woods and Nine, which have their moments, but generally flounder. Here, though, he manages to keep the bland aquamarine sogginess of his underwater visuals out of the way of the focus on the simple fairy tale logic and that core of emotion. Bailey’s Ariel carries it, partly because she gets that great number to get us caring, and partly because she is able to bring something like an inner life to her mute longing. Besides, the new screenplay by David Magee (of Life of Pi), when not dutifully redoing the original, has done some reasonably smart balancing, using a longer run time to flesh out the role of Prince Eric and the kingdom on land a bit. He’s now an explorer, too, and his interests harmonize well with Ariel’s. We can see all the more fully why they’re meant for each other—a good thing, too, since the movie runs nearly a full hour longer than the original. If we’re going to spend more time with it, we might as well believe it. I was brought along by the sturdy structure, and, when Ariel finally finds a way to be part of our world, well, I’m not made of stone.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Running on Empty: FAST X

I watched Fast X with a sinking feeling. Oh, no, I thought. This is what people who dislike the Fast & Furious movies sight unseen assume they’re all like. Here’s a nonsensically plotted movie with Vin Diesel’s scowling visage and big ensemble of honorary family, cartoon-logic special effects action, grunted monosyllabic emotionalism, short shorts, street races, super-spy silliness, convoluted call-backs, cringing humor, clanging cameos, and sentimental emotionality in a gear-head soap opera of the dumbest order in grindingly repetitive sequences of weightless noise and chaos punctuated by preposterous feats of vehicular mayhem. Sure, they all have bits of that, and that's often fun, but this one gets the mix all wrong. I imagined dials and knobs and levers and switches pushed around in a haphazard manner resulting in a cacophony of empty confusion. It has everything us fans love about the series, but it’s jumbled up in the wrong proportions with ineffectual execution.

New-to-the-series director Louis Leterrier just doesn’t have the subtle touch of Justin Lin, who directed five of the previous 10 entries. Lin often made the preposterous sing with clean emotional hooks and an eye for expressive action beats that leapt lightly over the possible into the excitingly excessive. Leterrirer falls shorts exactly how Furious Seven’s James Wan and Fate of the Furious’s F. Gary Gray did, but more so. They were over-cranking everything but the characters’ basic believability and the plot’s streamlined cohesion. He adds the latter, too. Maybe Lin’s the only one who can get the balance right, though Vin’s the one who really has the reins at the this point. Regardless, X makes me appreciate how much closer Wan and Gray got than Leterrier does.

It doesn’t help comparisons that the first action scene—indeed, the first scene entirely—is made up of clips reused from Lin’s Fast Five with X’s flamboyant villain (Jason Momoa) awkwardly CG retconned in. The whole project then peaks early with a just-the-wrong-side-of-preposterous sequence in which an enormous round bomb pinballs through the streets of Rome. (That’s the good stuff.) The rest is just so much scattered character work—fleeting sketches and disconnected gobs of exposition that ill serves most every returning character and a few new ones—amidst some of the franchise’s limpest fight choreography and dopiest plotting, near abstract in its confusion and lack of emotional reality. That, too, peaks early when Rita Moreno, tears in her eyes, hugs Diesel while the score swells with a treacly reprise of “See You Again.”

I felt myself straining to enjoy myself, or at least tell the straw man hater in my imagination that, no, they aren’t usually like this. That said, I did find it merely disappointing and perplexing more than outright enraging, like the movie’s an overworked engine running off the last wispy fumes of my affection for this whole dumb fun series. Perhaps landing more frustratingly incomplete than anything else, the movie, advertised as the first half (or maybe third) of a finale, simply throws a bunch of nonsense in the air and then ends abruptly. Maybe they’ll figure it out next time. (Maybe it’ll take yet another round of villain-to-ally arcs or back-from-the-dead or secret-relative revelations to really stick the landing again.) A satisfying resolution may not make this particular entry any better, but at least it wouldn’t leave the franchise stranded on the side of the road with nothing left in the tank. That’s the sinking feeling that had me slump out of the multiplex grumbling that the exuberant F9 would’ve made a better finale—so far.

Saturday, May 6, 2023


Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 pays off a near-decade of investment I didn’t know I had in these misfit sci-fi heroes and this particularly eccentric and isolated corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It does so by offering what no other subset of the MCU has managed: an ending, full and complete, exciting and moving, and honest both to its characters and its tone. This is a rollicking adventure with wacky side characters and rambunctious action sequences. But it also really cares about these cartoony weirdos and has, in the end, found a reason to communicate that love through a vision of self-sacrifice in the name of an open-minded community. There’s a real idea here—about the futility of forced homogeneity, the futility of perfection, and the rousing power of ragtag diverse cooperation. And there’s vision of splashy colors and apocalyptic rumblings that set the characters on edge with a palpable sense of danger and finality.

The likes of earnest goof Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and killer green Gamora (Zoe Saldana) with her blue robot sister (Karen Gillan), talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel), hyper-literal muscle man Drax (Dave Bautista), and simpatico alien empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are still a loose, funny ensemble. And here their problems are treated with a genuine frayed edge. The writing gives them a strong squabbling affection and heartfelt duty. They really care about saving their world and their friends and everyone they can. Funny how often comic book movies let that slip away these days. This one populates its widescreen invention with a menagerie of characters we’ve actually come to care about, and who actually care about each other and what they’re doing instead of merely posing in the chaos. How nice that this entry is somehow freed from the treadmill of franchise promises—which so often strand each Marvel movie as just an extended promise that the next one will have the really good stuff. That makes it the only MCU property to emerge from the Avengers cross-overs and Disney+ spinoffs not looking worse for wear. It helps that the Guardians are easily the best parts of the enjoyable Infinity War and hollow Endgame. And that makes one of the biggest laughs in this new one when Star-Lord deadpans a one-sentence summary of the latter.

In this Volume 3, writer-director James Gunn gets to really dig into who these characters are, what they’d need to be happy, and how to send them off with the most satisfying resolutions possible. He’s finishing his neat trilogy of brightly poppy space operas set to a classic rock mixtape backbeat knowing he has the audience goodwill to place the entire film’s emotional and narrative thrust on the tragic backstory of the talking, gun-toting CGI Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). In the present tense he’s been wounded and his friends need to steal a couple MacGuffins to revive him. We also get flashbacks to the mad scientist who created him, which serves a double duty of exposition seeing as the experimenter in question is also our Big Bad. (Chukwudi Iwuji plays him as a howling, calculating evil, with an eerie calm face literally stapled on.) The two timelines work well to provide a fine undertow of tension and care. So there’s refreshingly a lot jostling and juggling for attention, pleasingly overstuffed and productively messy when so many of its franchise brethren are under-stuffed and tidily hollow. By the time we get to the Guardians hoping to save the villains’ experiments as they revive Rocket, it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys looting Sid’s toy box. I couldn’t resist that hook’s emotional appeal.

It’s a movie overflowing with side-characters and incident, animated by a contagious delight in invention and a specificity in its characters. The main cast are deployed well, and the choice supporting parts are efficiently and effectively drawn, too, like an antagonistic golden super-guy played by Will Poulter as a cross between a terminator on the hunt of our heroes and a sweetheart hoping to do his statuesque mother (Elizabeth Debicki) proud. We also get a few memorable moments with a scruffy space pirate gone good (Sean Gunn) and a telekinetic canine cosmonaut (speaking through a translation collar with the voice of Maria Bakalova) that build neat payoffs of their own. Even the henchmen and thugs and bystanders are given vivid shorthand characterization, fun punchlines, and fleeting touching moments of humanity. Here’s a movie powered on the belief that we should see the characters as characters, and not just action figures or Easter eggs.

This is a bustling picture, a large-scale, all-engines-go sci-fi jaunt powered with enjoyable emotional manipulation. It all comes to a head in a successive series of slam-bang set-pieces in which spaceships careen and laser-guns go kaplow as mutants and aliens and freakazoids of every shape and size ooze and splatter and smash. There are clever, concussive action sequences booming with sound and invention in a living space station, on an exploding planet, and as a space fortress collides with a giant skull. That’s all neat Jack Kirby-style fireworks and design peppered with punchlines. But because it’s driven by this surprising well of affection for the characters, and a commitment to bring them to some kind of conclusion, it works as a crowd-pleasing entertainment, an outsized comic book spectacle with the heart and soul others of its ilk so often miss. In retrospect, it’s a trilogy that put in the work to make us love its characters as much as its creators do, and it’s great to see them fly off on one more grand adventure together.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Puberty Blues: PETER PAN & WENDY and

When Disney wants a live-action version of an animated classic to have some weight and elegance and freshness, it turns out David Lowery is the writer-director on whom to call. His Pete’s Dragon was a lovely, low-key coming-of-age fantasy that turned its fantastical conceit into something shaggier—a boy-and-his-dragon tale. Lowery’s non-Disney work, like The Green Knight, also proves he’s a literate, sensitive filmmaker. He can dig into a classic text and draw out its deep, resonant inner life while making it his own. And with these skills, he can, in the case of Peter Pan & Wendy, hook into authentically Edwardian romanticism while cleverly adapting the mythos to make it resonant for his purposes. He doesn’t exactly revive J.M. Barrie’s original text, or Disney’s animated version, beat for beat, though there’s a flourish of “You Can Fly” in the score. Nor does he draw out everything that makes the work last, the work of a scholar who might capture it by pinning it down. But what he does do is provide it a sense of life and space with windswept verisimilitude—location photography that’s lush and vivid on grassy cliffs and verdant forests full of moss and shadow. And within this convincing locale captured with a filmic eye, he pulls on one simple lively thread from the classic story of a girl who’s given a glimpse of Neverland: the dread of growing older.

Perched on the precipice of puberty—Peter and Wendy are here cast in the last possible week they can be simultaneously the oldest children and youngest adolescents possible, depending on the angle—here’s a movie that pushes on the urgency of aging. They’re at an age where choices and fantasies mingle—and where growing up might be the biggest, bravest adventure. There’s the usual tangle of business with Lost Boys and Captain Hook and Tiger Lily, though all that’s done with a graceful shorthand. And the beautifully casual diversity of the Boys—some are even girls—and the melancholy backstory for Hook (Jude Law, with more real pain than sneering cartoon) feeds into the ideas of aging as a process by which you discover truths about yourself. To deny yourself, or others, that adventure, even through fantasy, is, after all, a kind of conflict that Lowery’s happy to explore outwards with some fairy tale logic and a bit of piratical swordplay. The film’s most moving moment finds Wendy, having walked off the plank, seeing her life flash before her eyes—but forward, not back. That’s a perfectly sentimental moment. And so, though the movie has swashbuckling with weight and peril, and a grand, old-fashioned Kids’ Adventure spirit, it falls back on that smaller, tremulous time where anything is possible, and the passage of time is just about to fall in with the limits of age and nothing can stay the same.

Much less metaphoric about growing older is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which burgeoning young adulthood is a source of much literal curiosity and angst. Here’s a movie tenderly attentive to the tenderest of times in a girl’s life. Based on the classic Judy Blume book, it tells the story of Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), a sixth grader whose life seems to be nothing but changes. Her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) have moved her from New York City to suburban New Jersey. She has a new school with new kids, and suddenly she’s getting crushes on cute boys and needs to ask her mom to go bra shopping for the first time, and her new friend group is made up of popular girls jealously testing their new ideas. Their gossipy preoccupations are starting to make Margaret nervous about when, exactly, she’ll be getting her period. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig keeps the movie loose, light, and episodic, so casually specific about moments in this girl’s life that there’s a generosity of insight just in the act of watching it unfold. There’s a comforting normality to what feels like, to its lead character, the first time anyone’s ever gone through such outsized changes. I suppose it’s true that, though most women go through this, for every woman it’s a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. This movie respects that balance.

But, also true to life, Craig keeps the movie balanced on all manner of youthful preoccupations—grades, parties, holidays, family dynamics, friendships, gossip, and vacations. Here’s a movie about a year in a life that doesn’t hurry toward big climactic melodramas, but instead leans back into the usual ups and downs of young adolescent life. Craig, whose previous film was the sharp and unusually perceptive teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen, in which a high schooler’s life goes flailing after her brother starts dating her best friend, is a writer-director smartly able to balance the intensity of youthful emotions with the perspective to see them clearly in a more mature context. So here the girls’ fluttering of fears and fantasies is both intensely focused and cut with cute dramatic ironies. They don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s exciting and exasperating all at once for them, and their loved ones. The movie becomes a fully realized world for Margaret, a cozy 70s period piece that doesn’t condescend to its times or its characters. It simply lets them be.

Here’s a movie that knows life is a continual process of self-discovery. As such, it has the conviction to also dig plainly into thornier issues of family and spirituality, as our lead finds herself questioning whether she should be Christian like her mother or Jewish like her father. Neither parent particularly cares, but her loving paternal grandmother (Kathy Bates) and estranged maternal grandparents certainly do. The movie has a multi-generational generosity as it brings to life a story of mothers and daughters—especially in McAdams’ glowingly natural performance, built entirely out of lovely grace notes and simple gestures that communicate so much love and good intentions built out of an aging uncertainty. It ties Margaret and her mother together, as potential adolescent conflicts share space with an older vision of daily social struggles. Here’s a movie that says you’re never too old to feel awkward, and never too young to start discovering your confidence. You just have to find those who love you either way. Craig’s compassionate and clear approach is both respectful and honest—just the encouraging balance a young audience might need, and their parents can appreciate. This is a charming movie—so sweet and simple that it casts the gentlest of spells, and clears space for earning its characters’ learning.