Thursday, September 22, 2016

New Release! Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Director: Travis Knight

One of the very best animated movies I've ever seen, but one I'm afraid has not found a wide enough audience.

Kubo and the Two Strings tells the tale of Kubo, a young boy whose mother has made great sacrifice to save him from an immensely powerful and supernatural danger. Saying more will likely spoil the story, but I can say that the tale becomes one of an epic adventure. After being forced to flee his home village, the ten-year old Kubo finds a couple of very strange protectors who seek to help him recover several magical items which will aid him in fending off the immense threat. I realize that this is a vague description, but much of the movie's appeal comes from the revelations of the details and how they are spun out. The basic story is perhaps nothing new, but I assure you that the details, which do some wondrously creative things with elements from classical Japanese mythology, are pleasantly unique for a family movie.

At this point, I will bring up my only complaint, if you can call it that. In terms of the jokes and site gags, not every one of them hits with the effectiveness that you would see in the very best Pixar or other animated movies. And there is a slyness and sarcasm which may end up dating the movie a little bit, many years down the road. I personally would have enjoyed getting a tone that may have been just a bit more timeless, but this is an extremely difficult feat for any story, and it is hardly a major demerit. For the most part, the dialogue and visual jokes were solid, if not mind-blowingly creative or funny throughout the movie.

And that is all I have for criticism of this movie. The rest is amazing. Firstly, the story itself is unlike nearly anything you would get from a Western movie studio family film. Relative newcomer to the animation game, Laika studios (who did Coraline and two other feature films before Kubo), clearly decided to challenge American audiences with different cultural elements and a more measured story pacing. Even the very beginning of the movie sets an oddly quiet, meditative tone, even though it is a scene invovling a literally storm-tossed mother and her infant son desperately trying to reach a safe shore. There is a real patience shown in the narrative, which may not be great for very young children, but it is bound to leave a great impression on those old enough to detect that there is something very different and profound happening in Kubo which sets it apart from the latest Disney musical.

Beetle, Kubo, and Monkey, on their way to fulfill their quest.
This kind of picturesque scene shows a great eye for scene
and framing, as do so many of the shots in the movie.
Profundity is hardly limited to the general tone, either. The primary themes of the film become sacrifice and how someone can cope with the deaths of those closest to them. And this is not done with some pat, cursory moral message conveniently thrown at you in the final two minutes of the movie. It is raised very early and revisited throughout the picture, without the topic ever becoming overly simplified or sentimental. And while "messages" can often be very ham-fisted or stifle a story, even if handled well, Kubo implies another strong one during the final confrontation between the "hero" and "villain," which resolves itself in a way unlike any family movie I can recall. I literally got choked up several times during the movie, thanks in no small part to the deep humanity being displayed by these little animated characters.

Only enhancing the emotional impact of the story and characters are the visuals. Using their own blend of stop-motion puppetry and CGI, Laika's animators crafted a vibrant, singular world which looks unlike anything I've seen. Adapting a medieval Japanese aesthetic, the settings, characters, and visual wizardry are on full display. I appreciated the fact that, rather than keeping the high-polished perfection typical of digital animation, there is noticeable wear on many of the characters and props. The little holes and tears in the clothing and the scars on characters' faces have a much more tangible feel than they might in a traditional two-dimensional animated feature. It only helps that the writers, rather than going for the standard laugh every 20 seconds, give us plenty of chances to sit back and marvel at the world and set pieces which they created.

Kubo and his trusty shamisen. Not many movies, including
animated family ones, would have the creativity or guts to
have its hero's main weapon be music, but this one does it
with gusto and a ton of heart. 
Rounding out the entire affair is the music - something which no doubt had a major role in stoking my own emotions. Being a sucker for mournful-sounding string instruments, I was affected by the thoughtful and skilled use of the Japanese shamisen - the traditional three-stringed instrument which Kubo uses in various ways. Yes, Disney and Pixar movies often have catchy singalong tunes or songs crafted and performed by brilliant pop musicians, but Kubo's music score is very much its own beautiful, if sometimes melancholy, creation. And the movie is made even better for it.

I saw this movie recently, roughly a month after its release. Once I did, I was curious about how well it was doing, commercially. Sadly, it hasn't done terribly well. I fear that this will be a movie that acquires similar cult status as a movie like The Iron Giant, which was a commercial flop that would eventually be recognized as one of the great animated movies. Kubo will maybe break even, but I fear that its lack of tremendous success will make studios more reluctant to fund such unique films. I hope I'm wrong, because the world could use more movies like this one. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Preacher, season 1; Stranger Things, season 1

The first issue of the original comic.
Getting a hold of this one required a
combination of fanboy zeal and a fair
bit of saved up bartending money.
Preacher, season 1 (2016)

I simply cannot write a review of this show without explaining my history with Preacher.

Two decades ago, I discovered a comic book that grabbed me unlike any other that had ever grabbed my comic-drenched brain. After reading some raves about it in a few nerd mags, I picked up issue #10 of Preacher. To make a long story short, after I read it multiple times, I put all of my financial efforts and free time into finding and purchasing every back issue as quickly as possible, so fun and novel was the story written by Irish scribe Garth Ennis, and so skillfully drawn was the tale by English artist Steve Dillon. I continued my ardent following, even going so far as to write several fan letters to the comic (I actually got a few of them published in the back of the monthly issues, much to my geekish delight) and meet and greet Ennis and Dillon at a couple of comic book conventions. The comic actually became as big a cult pop sensation as any comic ever had. Ennis was likened to the Quentin Tarantino of comic writing, and the book was getting endorsements from '90s pop creators like Kevin Smith and others. Occasionally rumors would surface of a movie or TV adaptation, but it all seemed rather unlikely, as the comic was so wildly violent and irreverent towards Christianity (and nearly everything else held dear by "civilized" folks).

Flash forward to 2015, when I discovered that AMC, the channel behind monster hit TV shows Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and others, had optioned the story for adaptation to be aired in 2016. I couldn't suppress a smile, as I felt that time and environment might actually be ripe enough for a proper cinematic telling of the insanely entertaining story that Ennis and Dillon gave us in comic form. In anticipation, I went back and re-read the entire comic series, and while it doesn't have quite the same magic as back when I discovered it, it is still a fun, original, and crazy tale. But how, exactly, would such a bonkers story translate to TV?

For those unfamiliar, the story follows Jesse Custer, a Christian reverend in the fictional small west Texas town of Annville. Jesse is a tortured soul who struggles with trying to be a classic "good guy" in the mold of hero cowboys popularized in U.S. narrative mythology (he reveres the types of characters that John Wayne played in his best movies) but also be a good and loving Christian. While he is in a position of religious authority, he has a very dark and wild past, and these two parts of his life seem to be in constant battle with one another. One day, while at his parish in Annville, he is violently possessed by some sort of supernatural entity which grants him the power to compel others to do whatever he tells them. Added into this strange mix is an Irish vampire, Cassidy, and Jesse's wild ex-girlfriend Tulip. All three are swept up in bizarre forces with a serious interest in the power that Jesse now wields.

My history with Preacher makes it impossible to see it with fresh eyes, in any form. I realized this going in, but I could not have anticipated just how liberally the show writers would be with their re-arrangement of many of the elements of the story. The result is something that, to the uninitiated, will be a bizarre and rollicking TV show with very much its own style.

Jesse and Cassidy, having a cold one. Cooper and Gilgun are
great in their roles, though there are a few odd turns in their
actions which are not always coherent.
But therein lies the problem. Style. I found that, in the TV adaptation of Preacher, style overwhelmed more important elements of good stories, be they in a written, aural, or visual medium. The creators certainly had a good sense of how to cut striking images and craft some very memorable scenes and sequences. The problem is that I often felt that there was a lack of cohesion, both within individual characters and between their various actions, interactions, and reactions to each other. In early episodes, Jesse makes odd shifts from being a man wracked with doubts to being a classic southern badass, with often little to no indication of what triggers the change. Nearly every other character suffers from similar lack of integrity. Tulip lets Cassidy have sex with her for no apparent reason. Cassidy shows a flash of remorse for reasons completely unclear. Emily, the upstanding soccer mom and parish assistant, literally feeds her part-time lover and town mayor to Cassidy from out of nowhere. I certainly don't mind stories where wild and unpredictable actions take place, but there has to be some consistency to the characters themselves. Otherwise, it is very difficult to feel invested in them, as they become shoddy constructs with whom we cannot identify.

This slightly schizo feel aside, I generally liked the show, thanks in no small part to the acting. The casting and performances are as good as I could have hoped. Dominic Cooper does Jesse's character a ton of justice, and Joseph Gilgun makes an incredible Cassidy. While I'm still not completely sold on what they are doing with the Tulip character, Ruth Negga nails every line and scene with the power and toughness that the role demands. Even many of the secondary roles are played to great effect, most notably Jackie Earle Haley as the despicably twisted Odin Quincannon. And even beyond the characters, there are some hilariously clever sequences during the season. One of my favorites involved a chainsaw, a dismembered arm, and a really odd fight in the middle of Jesse's church.

The show does set a rather insane tone, which makes it easier to accept some crazy, inexplicable things. It is for this reason that I'll be giving season 2 a shot. The way the first season ended, the primary characters are forced to hit the road, which should bring up plenty of other opportunities for bizarre, episodic happenings. It seems fairly clear that the show runners have a long-term plan in order, not unlike other AMC hit show Breaking Bad, and I saw enough to bring me back for the start of the sophomore season.

This group of kids was great, to a person. They would have
fit right into Spielberg's best PG flicks from the '80s. 
Stranger Things, season 1 (2016)

I'm generally not a fan of shows that use nostalgia as a device, but Stranger Things is a major exception in my eyes. The show was a wonderfully entertaining trip back to late-'70s and early-'80s science-fiction and horror films.

Using some of the best horror and fantasy movies as inspiration for tone, Stranger Things follows a group of young children as they deal with a friend mysteriously disappearing. The friends, along with a handful of concerned but scattered local adults, slowly uncover increasingly bizarre elements to the disappearance, including its seeming connection to a nearby power company. Saying much more will spoil the fun of the story's primary revelations, so most of it is best left untold. Suffice it to say that, while the plot elements are not completely novel, the form they take and the combination and mixture of them together is extremely satisfying.

A big part of the show's feel is connected to its time - the early 1980s. The directors, the Duffer brothers, quite clearly wanted to offer the look and feel of the mot classic TV shows and movies from that same era from directors like John Carpenter and, much more obviously, Steven Spielberg. If the creepy tone and horror elements come from Carpenter, then nearly everything else is inspired by Spielberg, most notably his films E.T. and The Goonies. The focus on a group of misfit, pre-pubescents is right in line with the most successful PG-13 blockbusters of that day, and everything from the clothing and dialogue right down to the set designs and props would be right at home in an episode of Amazing Stories.

Lest you think that nostalgia is the main thing going for this show, rest assured that it is not. The pace and flow of the tale is masterfully unfolded, the acting is excellent, and there is an expert balance between terror, tension, humor, and adventure. I have to believe that this is a difficult mixture to get right, even when working from preexisting materials, but the Duffers pulled it off.

The only minor gripe I have is that the show did leave a few not-so-small questions unanswered, clearly setting up a second season. This is fine, I suppose, but I would have appreciated a more self-contained story told within a single season, something that is a rarity these days. But this hardly kills what was otherwise a really fun show. I'll be eagerly anticipating the next season. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Trekking, the modern way: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) & Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Director: J.J. Abrams

I had only seen this one once before, when it was released in the theaters three years ago. My feelings are the same now as then - it's a fun, fairly engaging action ride that was bound to appeal to the masses more than the hard-core Star Trek or science-fiction fans.

Continuing J.J, Abrams reboot of the original TV series started with 2009's Star Trek, Into Darkness sees the further development of the young crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. After briefly losing command of the starship, James Kirk (Chris Pine) is quickly thrust back into the command seat in order to hunt down a murderous fugitive - John Harrison. Harrison has bombed a Starfleet archive and personally launched an assault on Kirk and his commanding officers, only to flee into a Klingon-controlled part of the galaxy. Kirk is ordered by his commanding officer to not only track down but also kill Harrison, an order seemingly at odds with the passive mission statement of the Enterprise and its crew. Once Kirk finds Harrison, the tables are turned a bit, as Harrison actually saves Kirk and several of his crew, and allows himself to be taken prisoner. It is soon revealed that Harrison is actually Kahn Singh Noonian, a powerful character deeply entrenched in the mythos of Star Trek, dating back to the original TV series and the outstanding film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Kahn is on a mission to recover his fellow genetically-enhanced "superhumans", who were created centuries before during a rather dark period on Earth. The ruthless and powerful Kahn's goals lead him into direct confrontation with the crew of the Enterprise.

As an action adventure story, the movie is decent enough. The plot takes a few curious twists and turns, and there are some fun sequences and set pieces. It can certainly satisfy many an itch for an escapist, popcorn movie. Alas, I'm sure many a hardcore Star Trek fan had issues with the movie. Even as a person with a mere passing knowledge of the Trek mythology, I had to raise an eyebrow here and there, thanks to some of director and writer J.J. Abrams choices regarding the use of characters and storylines. As the excellent film and TV critic David Edelstein once referred to Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens as "brilliantly unoriginal," I can't avoid similar feelings about Into Darkness. It's not that the story is a ripoff, but many of the details smack of some clumsy pandering to the fans. "Let's have Spock fall in love with Uhura!" "Let's reenact the famous scene from Star Trek II where Kirk dies saving everyone, only this time, it's Kirk who dies while Spock looks on!" "Let's have Spock get really angry and nearly beat Kahn to death!" These are ideas that I think were meant to get serious Trek fans excited, but I found them rather contrived and running a bit too counter to the spirit of some of the characters.

There is also an issue regarding the revelations and development of the characters. Not long ago, I went back and watched many of the original Star Trek TV series episodes, as well as the first three feature films. Because of this, I know the entire backstory of Kahn, which is one of the very best tales within the Trek mythology. If you know it, then Into Darkness can feel like it doesn't fully capitalize on who Kahn is and what he represents. If you don't know it, then you are likely to be rather lost as to the character's potential depth and power.

Of course, Abrams is a solid enough director to avoid any major "movie" mistakes. The performances are all strong (though I've never enjoyed the usually great Karl Urban's over-channeling of Deforest Kelley), the narrative clicks along at a nice pace, and the sequences are executed well. For these reasons, it's hard to be terribly critical of it. Several details might frustrate, but the movie is still decent fun.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Director: Justin Lin

It's a decent entry into the movie series, but one that realized some of my worries about handing the directing reins over to the man behind the recent Fast and Furious movies.

Beyond flashes forward three years from Into Darkness, with the crew of the Enterprise over halfway into their five-year mission of exploration. Captain Kirk is suffering from a crisis of purpose, losing his certainty as to whether he is meant to be an explorer. No sooner does he submit a request to transfer to work on a massive space station than a desperate scientist emerges from the far reaches of the galaxy, desperately asking for help in finding her abducted crew. Kirk and the Enterprise crew suit up and head out. Shortly after they arrive within a distant asteroid belt, they are aggressively taken when the the Enterprise is shot down over a nearby planet. The surviving crew members are scattered about, and they must work to find each other and the person responsible for their dire predicament.

I certainly appreciate what the story does, plot-wise. Seemingly drawing from its roots in the original TV series, we get the crew stuck on an unknown planet with a mysterious aggressor. We get to see some fun dynamics in pairings like McCoy and Spock, and we get some intriguing new characters for the mainstays to deal with. For much of the movie, I wasn't sure if the story was holding together very well, but things coalesce fairly well by the end. I felt that the entire tale captured many of the best aspects of the spirit of Star Trek, while not relying overly on the successful plotlines or character tropes of past entries. The latter is something that J.J. Abrams' movies, fun as they are, failed to avoid.

I also thought that the characters were handled a bit more deftly in Beyond than with the previous two movies. While the characteristics which make them distinct are still wholly intact, we aren't beaten over the head with not-too-subtle "twists" on their personalities, like Spock kissing Uhura or nearly killing a man. There is a rather organic struggle in both Kirk and Spock regarding their respective commitments to the mission of Star Fleet, which adds a touch more legitimate depth to their development. On a lighter note, I was also glad to see Karl Urban dial down his Deforest Kelly impersonation just a hair. He's still channeling the original, but not quite as heavily as before, which I was glad to see. The introduction of a strong and capable new character, Jaylah, was a welcome sight, as well.

I felt that there were too many scenes that looked like this -
tons of junk zipping around the screen, blowing other junk up
or being blown up by other junk. Not terribly interesting.
Were the movie comprised almost wholly of story and character, I probably would have loved it. Alas, it is a Justin Lin movie, and that means action. And explosions. Lots of them. And while I will give him credit for not going the John Woo/Michael Bay route of using slow motion, I have to say that I didn't particularly enjoy Lin's large-scale action scenes. In fact, I thought they were rather dull. Yes, the CGI is very well done, and there are some interesting visuals turns here and there. But I found too many of the action sequences overly long, to the point that I was zoning out while waiting for the next meaningful interaction between characters. Even action scenes when large objects weren't attacking each other or bursting into flames, such as the motorcycle rescue mission, didn't offer much sense of wonder, thanks to some convenient but flat out dumb oversight of basic questions (how, exactly, do hologram duplicates manage to affect their physical environment, pray tell?). If it's one thing I want my science fiction not to do, is not to ignore basic physics and science.

And oh by the way, can we stop having the Enterprise get shot down? This is no longer the shocking image that it once was, before it happened I don't know how many times in the various TV shows and films (including Into Darkness). Please go to something else if you want to give Trek fans a "devastating" turn of events.

I will say that the movie did surprise me a bit by the end, in terms of giving us a villain with some depth. And the reveal of his identity and nature was spun out at a nice pace. This did redeem it to the point that I would probably watch Beyond again. I do hope future entries in the series look to this one in terms of drawing from the very best spiritual roots of Star Trek, and they continue to capitalize more on them. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Bourne Series: 2002-2016

The Bourne series is one of those film series that, despite being massively popular, I was never terribly well-versed in. I had seen two of the original trilogy, but found them mostly forgettable. I also watched The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner, on an airplane. Like the other films, it left little impression on me. Despite my tepid reactions, the new Jason Bourne trailers stoked a desire to go back and give them another go. And here's how it went:

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Director: Doug Liman

On seeing this one again, it is not difficult to see why it hasn't stuck with me. Although a very competent movie in terms of acting, pace, visuals, action, and suspense, The Bourne Identity comes off as oddly shallow.

The basic story follows Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a young man who is found unconscious and fished out of the water off the Mediterranean coast, but who has no recollection of who is when revived. Following a few sparse clues left on his person, he eventually learns that he is an elite, lethally trained assassin whose most recent mission went awry. Just as he begins to learn these things, his superiors in the U.S. government send similar assassins after him, to ensure his silence.

And this pretty much sums it all up. Yes, there is a woman involved - Marie (Franka Potente), who gets swept along with Bourne's desperate attempt to learn his identity and evade his pursuers. But while Marie's presence does offer a bit of levity, the romance which develops between her and Bourne feels rather forced and almost superfluous. There is nothing to suggest what, exactly, she sees in Bourne, aside from perhaps a primal attraction to dangerous, confused men.

For its lack of depth, the movie is still fairly satisfying, as far as action/suspense movies go. The revelations about Bourne's past are just intriguing enough, and the shootouts and hand-to-hand fight scenes are well executed. The resolution is standard Hollywood fare, but does lend a solid sense of closure to this initial movie in the series. I don't need to watch this one again, but I enjoyed this re-viewing well enough.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Director: Paul Greengrass

An overall improvement upon the solid movie that was Identity, though one that I don't enjoy as much as dedicated fans of the Bourne film series.

This movie picks up roughly two years after the original ends - Jason Bourne has eluded detection and is living in an Indian town with Marie, the German woman who got caught up with Bourne's manic game of cat-and-mouse and fell in love with the amnesiac assassin. Bourne is still extremely wary of being found, as he should be. The ruthless politician who killed his superior is still after him, hoping to eliminate Bourne as a living piece of incriminating evidence. To this end, he helps frame Bourne and lets loose a very dangerous Russian assassin to kill him. Instead, the assassin kills Marie, sending Bourne back into action to learn who is responsible and exact revenge upon them.

As an overall movie, Supremacy is better than Identity. While is does rely mostly on action and suspense for its entertainment value, there is more depth to the tale. The espionage elements are more intricate, and the character studies run deeper than the first film. A driving force to the story is Bourne's first assassination - that of an honorable, progressive Russian politician and his wife - which Bourne does not initially remember committing. In a way that the first film never truly explored, this element reminds us that Bourne has committed some horrendous acts in the past, implying questions about who he was before he was molded into a lethal tool of the U.S. government. This also leads directly to the unraveling of the plot to frame him, which is constructed and spun out very well for a spy thriller.

If you can't tell, that is indeed a rolled-up magazine which
Bourne is using in this intense fight. If you're hyper-attentive
(or maybe on Aderol), you might just be able to keep up with
some of the clever uses of environmental objects during these
disorienting combat sequences.
My issue with this movie (which I suspect I will have with subsequent entries) is director Paul Greengrass's approach to filming action sequences. He is one of the best-known proponents of the "shaky cam" technique, by which many scenes, especially action scenes, are shot with the camera extremely close to the actors during hand-to-hand fighting scenes or any fast-moving objects, such as in car chases. This technique also relies heavily on lightning-quick cuts, so that a shot is rarely sustained for more than two or three seconds. I know that many fans love this kind of filming, as it lends a certain sense of intimacy and intensity to the action. For my part, though, I find this style highly annoying and often simply difficult to watch. I am no great fan of pure action movies, but I greatly appreciate the skill that a sustained, single-shot action sequence commands. To use a recent example, the movie John Wick does an excellent job of this, with many long action scenes during which the intensity increases with every second that passes without a film cut. Paul Greengrass takes a very different approach, and I simply do not enjoy it.

It's not hard to see why Supremacy jumped the Bourne series from a good single film to a "franchise". It is one of the very best movies in the genre, and Greengrass's action directing has garnered a ton of fans. Though I'm hardly one of them, it is easy to see where its popularity comes from.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Director: Paul Greengrass

Because this movie is on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working through, I did a full review of it here. It is in keeping with Greengrass's first Bourne movie.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Director: Tony Gilroy

After director Paul Greengrass and star actor Matt Damon put the lid on the original Bourne trilogy, I suppose that movie producers simply couldn't let a blockbuster franchise lay at rest. Hence, they decided to bring viewers back into the world of Jason Bourne, albeit without the titular assassin-on-the-run. The result is a slightly messy tale that didn't quite maximize its potential.

In an unusual move for a highly successful film series, several creators involved with the original trilogy decided to follow a narrative tangent with Legacy. It focuses on Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a black ops assassin who has undergone training and physical enhancements similar to Jason Bourne, though in a program known as Outcome - a splinter program of the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs created by the C.I.A. and the forces behind Jason Bourne's creation. When Bourne blows the lid off of Treadstone and all related, shadowy doings of those who controlled him, the handlers of the Outcome program decide to start wiping out evidence of its existence. Namely, they start assassinating their own assassins. Aaron Cross manages to narrowly avoid execution, and then he goes looking for medicine necessary to keep him alive. This brings him to Doctor Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a biochemist who worked at an Outcome lab where Cross and other assassins would receive medical attention. The two find themselves on the run from C.I.A. teams associated with Outcome who want them both dead in order to keep their secrets safe.

The movie has several merits going for it. The basic story is a decent one that uses the pre-existing elements of the Bourne universe well. The acting is all top-notch. The cinematography is solid, and there are several arresting shots in the movie. There are even some action sequences that show some nice creativity and execution (easier for me to like, anyway, since I am not a fan of the shaky cam technique utilized by Paul Greengrass).

Still, there are a few things which keep the movie from really standing out among suspenseful espionage movies. The primary one is that the movie does not stand on its own at all. Anyone who hasn't seen the first three movies will be completely lost, especially during the first 30 minutes of Legacy. The story throws you right into events which are taking place concurrently with events detailed in The Bourne Ultimatum, without so much as a handy little recap of who Bourne is, or how those in the C.I.A. are tied to him. The writers clearly assumed that anyone watching the movie already knew this. If you didn't, then the motivations behind the opening attacks and the tension between people will be a complete mystery that is never clearly answered in Legacy. This lack of clarity continues throughout the movie, making the plot a somewhat slippery thing which is difficult to hold onto. The tale ultimately rests on the very basic device of pure survival to carry it through. What is a fairly complex story of high-level intelligence agency machinations is ultimately reduced to a cat-and-mouse game on the ground.

Renner and Weisz - two solid actors who do good work, but
with a somewhat tepid script and plot. 
Another problem which lends to the inevitable simplification of an otherwise intricate plot is that we never feel much investment in the C.I.A. being taken to task. In the previous films, it was fairly clear who the self-interested, heartless individuals were, offering us the satisfaction of Bourne finding them and laying them low. In Legacy, though, Cross never really learns exactly who is after him, and so is never able to pursue them. In a way, this is not unlike the end of the very first film, The Bourne Identity, which makes me wonder if Legacy was meant to be the first of a different Bourne series (though, confusingly, not including anyone with the name Bourne). Whatever the case, the film doesn't offer much satisfaction beyond Cross and Shearing avoiding death several times and escaping at the end.

Escaping death can actually be a satisfying ending, if the characters who escape are engaging enough. I didn't find this to be the case with Legacy. Again, this had nothing to do with the actors. All of them, and especially Renner and Weisz, did absolutely everything they could with what they had in terms of a script. But the story never gives us enough on the characters to develop more than a superficial notion that they are decent people. We are almost asked to take it for granted that we should be pulling for Cross and Shearing. On top of this, the two seem to develop some odd sort of bond from out of nowhere, at times gazing into each other's eyes and sharing a few gentle hand caresses. While not quite as clumsy as the relationship between Bourne and Marie in Identity, this semi-romance feels forced.

Legacy is by no means a bad movie, which is why it is a curious watch. If one is not looking at it with an overly critical eye, they will probably enjoy it quite a bit. I myself had to really think about why the movie was not grabbing me as much as it could have, since it didn't seem to be making any crucial mistakes. And that is the conclusion I came to - the movie avoids any critical errors and does several things very well, but it fails with several of the smaller things that really lend to good movies. The movie likely wouldn't have been a major hit all by itself, but it certainly didn't help that it was the follow-up to two extremely successful and well-received movies.

What of Jason Bourne?

I actually haven't seen the most recent movie, in which Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass return to the title character. I figure I'll do a stand-alone post once I get to it. Reviews were lukewarm, as was the public's response, and it sounds like it is no different from the previous Greengrass Bourne movies. In short, I don't expect that I'll like it much. Still, I'll try to go in with an open mind and see if it surprises me. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Retro Trio, Christopher Nolan Edition: The Prestige (2006); Inception (2010); Interstellar (2014)

This little themed set of reviews started with a late-night viewing of The Prestige, and ended up with my discovering that I had never reviewed Inception, which I did re-watch only about a month ago. From there, it was a small jump to add Interstellar, which I only saw once when it was released. 

The Prestige (2006)

It speaks well for a movie when you put it on late at night with the intention of watching maybe 30 minutes while you drift into sleep, and then you realize that it's past midnight and you have every intention of watching every last second of the remaining hour of the movie. This is even more impressive when it's a movie you've seen several times already, as I had with The Prestige before this most recent viewing.

Coming out a little over a year after his true breakout smash hit, Batman Begins, this movie solidified just what Christopher Nolan can do with a large budget. Though completely different in subject and presentation than his take on the famous DC superhero, The Prestige bore all of the hallmarks of Nolan's writing and directing: a non-linear narrative; a surprise ending; a dark general tone; extremely slick visuals; Michael Caine. Nolan's films virtually all blend these elements into solid films.

The Prestige tells the tale of two rival magicians (or "illusionists", as Gob Bluth would demand) in the early 20th century who become viciously obsessed with defeating each other, at first professionally but eventually in every way. Getting their start together as assistants to a more established stage magician in London, one of them accidentally has a hand in the death of the other's wife. This sets of a chain of events in which each one attempts to sabotage the other's act while establishing himself as the premier stage magician in London. The sabotage attempts grow ever-more-dangerous, even leading to maiming and an eventual arrest for murder.

Borden and Angier, two budding magicians before their lethal
rivalry develops. There is refreshing shift in just who is the
more sympathetic character as the plot progresses.
The story has plenty of intrigue built into it already, but Nolan enhances it with his narrative choices. Similar to his approach in Memento, he tells the story by alternating between past and present, giving us a chance to see the steps that led to the deadly opposition between two past colleagues. And not unlike that earlier movie, this is one that is likely to inspire you to want to see it again immediately after your first viewing, just so that you can follow the meaning of the earlier parts of the movie better, once you have the complete picture. I always appreciate how Nolan has fun with how he orders his narratives, and he has a strong enough grasp of the technique that it adds solid entertainment value.

This isn't to say that the movie is flawless. Similar to other Nolan movies, the romantic relationships are never really fleshed out. Despite having very good actors in the key roles - Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johannsen, and Rebecca Hall - the romance between the different pairs never feels completely natural. It's hardly the most essential part of this movie, but it is relevant enough so that the lack of completely authentic emotions results in a dulled impact at certain moments in the movie.

I suppose the one other minor criticism that I can level at the movie is that there is a truly supernatural element thrown into a movie which is otherwise all about the art of slight-of-hand. This element of the truly fantastic works quite well, given how it is introduced and used, but I would understand if some viewers find it more than a little out of place. Perhaps even as a slight bit of cheating, even.

Among Christopher Nolan's films, I would actually rate this among his very best, which for me are The Dark Knight and Inception. Anyone who happened to miss this one would do well to go back and watch it.

Inception (2010)

One could divide Nolan's movies into "original" and "adapted" groups. While the former group would include the Dark Knight trilogy and a remake like InsomniaInception would fall into the latter category. And like few directors, Nolan's originals are equal to or arguably better than his adapted films.

If you haven't seen it, Inception focuses on Cobb, an expert in the field of extraction - a method of entering another person's dreams and retrieving ideas. Cobb's services are highly prized by corporate raiders who seek to pull valuable corporate secrets out of the minds of their competitors. However, Cobb is on the run from U.S. law enforcement, as he is the prime suspect in his wife's murder. To clear his name in order to return home to his children, Cobb accepts a highly risky but possibly life-changing job of performing the questionable act of inception - the technique of implanting, rather than extracting, an idea into a person's mind. Cobb assembles a team to help him create a complex series of dream worlds through which they can enter their target's mind and incept the appropriate idea.

In keeping with the stories that Nolan usually tells, Inception unfolds on several levels. Early in the movie, we are introduced to the concept of extraction and even the notion of a dream within a dream. In the third act, though, we eventually are watching a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream (that's five levels, if you didn't count). It can be a bit disorienting or even frustrating, if you're not paying close attention. If you are, however, it can be a really fun and creative ride. Each dream takes place in a distinct environment with its own look and feel, with each one offering some new insight as to how the concepts of inception and extraction work. It helps that there is a tension and urgency built into each dream level, allowing the suspense to pull us along. Nolan has always had fun with how he plays with narratives, and it seems like he was having a blast with this one.

The dream-world hotel hallway fight scene is one of the most
cinematically dazzling sequences in recent times.
The visuals are possibly the best in any Nolan film, which is saying something. He has done some spectacular things on film, but Inception probably features several of his most iconic images. From the folding cities to the slow motion world explosions to the fight in the rotating hotel room, this movie offered a ton of scenes and sequences that are unlikely to be forgotten once seen. Add these to the sleek look and feel of every shot and frame typical to Nolan's pictures, and you have a movie that is visually wondrous to behold.

Upon this most recent viewing, something else finally dawned on me - the terror in the concept of being infected with an idea that you cannot banish. And if that idea is urging you to kill yourself and your loved ones? That is truly the stuff of nightmares and insanity. Inception teases this idea out and drives it home in dramatic fashion, and it was only recently that I recognized just how disturbing it is.

I remember really enjoying Inception  when it was first released, while still having a few gripes about it. There were a few questions I didn't feel were fully addressed, and some parts of the movie tried my patience a bit. Now that I have re-watched it a few times, though, I find it easier to accept the flaws as minor. The movie is actually a rarity for the last decade - a high-quality, big-budget movie that is completely original. Nearly every other mainstream, popular movie has been adapted from a book or series (Harry Potter, anything YA), has been a remake of an earlier movie or franchise (Star Trek, Star Wars), or is a sequel to a previous blockbuster (The Fast and the Furious, among others). This fact makes me root for movies like Inception and appreciate them all the more.

Interstellar (2014)

Nolan shot for the literal and figurative stars with this one. My original review is here.

Upon a second viewing, this film holds up fairly well, and I felt a tad more forgiving about a few of the elements which puzzled or annoyed me back in 2014. Matthew McConaughey's voice is still a nuisance, but a few of the performances which I previously questioned no longer agitate me. And I actually found a little more enjoyment in a few sequences which I felt dragged during my first viewing.

I still consider Interstellar one of Nolan's weaker movies, but this is very relative. Even his worst films are considerably better than most large-scale, epic Hollywood films. Curiously, I think that it will ultimately be looked upon by future viewers much more kindly than the previous year's critical darling Gravity - a movie which amazed me once but which I have never felt the need to watch again, and whose weaknesses are jarring and more obvious with every passing year. I do not foresee such a fate for Interstellar. It's not 2001 or Tarkovsky's Solaris, but it is strong enough to earn a mention and some comparison with those titans of science fiction films about space exploration.

I generally haven't changed my original feelings about the movie, except for one main aspect. I've come to a slightly better acceptance of the forces which bring Cooper back in touch with his daughter. Slightly. I do still find it rather sentimental to use the premise that love spans any breadth of space or time, but I appreciated just how the story is organized and weaves the concept into the overall tale.

Cooper and his crew on a new planet. This was arguably the
most stunning sequences among several strong
contenders. Nolan never slacks on visuals.
One other merit which I failed to fully appreciate on my first viewing was the music. The score, composed, by longtime movie score maestreo Hans Zimmer, is wonderfully affecting. Maybe it's just my love of organ music, but I could find myself watching some of the visual sequences multiple times just to take in the pairing with the music.

Nolan's movies make up an unusually high percentage of the rather small number of movies that I own (out of the 30 blu rays that I have, 4 of them are Nolan films). I'm obviously someone who enjoys his films enough to splurge for them, knowing that I will watch them repeatedly. Yet I still feel no need to buy Interstellar. I think it is a good movie, but not one that I will need to watch again any time soon, if ever. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Retro Trio: Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005); The Incredibles (2005)

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012)

Director: Gyorgy Palfi

A very tough movie to track down, but an astounding piece of work.

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen is a masterpiece of vision and film editing by Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi. Palfi uses literally hundreds of short clips (most are between 2 and 5 seconds) from hundreds of famous and not-so-famous movies to tell the classic boy-meets-girl story that has been told so many times in film. It is almost difficult to put into words what this film does and just how amazing it is in its execution.

To give you some sense of the magic in the movie, it may help to describe the opening few minutes. We start with various clips of male characters from roughly a dozen or so movies going through the actions of waking up, getting out of bed, showering, and shaving. In a scant few seconds, we viewers understand that all of the men in these many scenes are really one character, going through the very familiar motions of starting his day. From this point on, the movie becomes not the story of a single male and single female character but rather the universal story that literally hundreds of film couples have lived out on screen. It's a trick phenomenal not only in its ingenuity but also in how quickly it establishes itself.

While there are little dashes of dialogue (in several different languages), the movie is far more about the feelings which the scenes evoke. Relying almost completely on the characters' facial expressions and physical movements, the tale exhibits visual storytelling that is the true hallmark of film more than any other medium. Through the moving pictures, we sense the joy, boredom, confusion, excitement, lust, sadness, anger, fear, and wealth of other emotions that the two "everycouple" goes through. The fact that these emotions are so very clear is an amazing testament to the editing work done by director Gyorgy Palfi, whose blending of so many films (almost 450, apparently) is truly awesome.

You might think it odd to meld the likes of Norman Bates and
Amelie in the same sequence, but it becomes completely
orgranic and highly entertaining in this movie.
And lest you think that the basic tale might be too general or broad to be interesting, I should make clear that there are plenty of great little turns and unexpected visual twists. Waiting to see just which film clip will be used to convey a certain feeling is an exhilarating experience, and one that offers more than a few surprises. You might grin when you see John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever strut used to exhibit the man's confidence, but it's downright hilarious when the scene shifts to a silent Charlie Chaplin walking along a street with equal self esteem, also in time with the Bee-Gees' disco beat. There are also plenty of fun and playful combinations of different clips whereby you get an unexpected reaction or simply a clever use of an already-humorous film segment.

This film is an absolute treasure for movie lovers. I would be seriously remiss if I didn't acknowledge my local video store, Viva Video, and its pure cinephile owner Miguel for tracking this movie down and making it available. Apparently, it is completely unavailable for sale in the U.S. (perhaps the entire Western Hemisphere) due to the Gordian Knot of movie licencing rights involved. All the same, Miguel procured a couple from a Hungarian library, allowing people like me to enjoy a truly unique work of film art. Anyone who appreciates the artistry of cinema would do well to track this one down.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Director: Shane Black

After recently seeing and loving Shane Black's The Nice Guys, I had a strong urge to go back and watch this earlier hidden gem of his. I had seen it about 10 years ago, but remembered virtually nothing about it. While it might not be quite as entertaining as The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is still a lot of fun and sadly underrated.

Seeing this movie again, it now seems like a solid precursor to what Black would master in The Nice Guys. Borrowing from the neo-noir template, it follows small-time thief Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a lovable semi-loser who is accidentally mistaken for an aspiring actor and whisked away to Hollywood. There, he meets his old high school friend and secret crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), and the two become embroiled in a murder mystery too bizarre to happen anywhere but Tinsel Town. Reluctantly assisting them is the tough and highly capable private investigator Gay Perry (Val Kilmer).

There are ample Shane Black hallmarks in this movie. Plenty of great one-liners and verbal exchanges. A few solid sight gags. Fun, unexpected little twists on overly familiar tropes and cliches. While it doesn't take long to recognize the story as neo-noir, it is nearly impossible to guess which avenues it will take on the way to its resolution. At times, this can lead to a mild sense of incoherence, but the many plot threads do come together at the end.

Helping the movie along is some great acting by Downey, Monaghan, and Kilmer. It's interesting in retrospect, as this movie was a very early part of Downey's steady rebound back into feature films, while also being one of the last solid movies starring Val Kilmer. Both phenomenal actors, whose careers were heading in very different directions in 2005. Seeing them in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is likely to remind you of why Downey reclaimed his status as a great actor, while at the same time reminding you to ask what, exactly, has happened to Val Kilmer.

The movie does have a few little bugs. The primary one for me was the use of voice-over narration. While this has long been a standard element of noir movies, it actually seems out of place and often completely superfluous in this film. There are also a few moments when the story moves at a herky-jerky pace. These are actually things which Black seems to have worked out wonderfully in The Nice Guys. These little flaws aside, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a somewhat hidden gem that more people should revisit.

The Incredible family, dealing with some domestic problems
in their own ways. The incorporation of their powers into the
visual action and sight gags is top notch.
The Incredibles (2004)

Director: Brad Bird

Still my favorite Pixar movie. And this is saying something.

I hadn't watched this one in probably seven or eight years, and this seems to have been just enough time to fully rediscover my appreciation for how brilliant it is. It's even more impressive when you realize that it came out just before the complete explosion of modern comic book superhero movies, sparked in my mind by Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins in 2005. Even before all of that, Brad Bird came up with a superhero story that is still just as original and entertaining as it was a dozen years ago.

You're likely to know the story - the Parrs are a family comprised of people with superhuman powers, but they have to keep them completely hidden since public use of superpowers has been outlawed. The father, Bob, previously known as Mr. Incredible during his superhero days, accepts a clandestine invitation to stop a runaway robot on an exotic island. This leads to a greater threat that eventually forces the rest of his family to come to his rescue and make use of their considerable abilities.

The movie is everything a person could want in a good movie. It's funny, thoughtful, and endlessly entertaining. As with the very best Pixar movies, there is some worthy social commentary to be found for those looking for it, and the plot is smarter than much of big-screen movie fare, animated or otherwise. This most recent viewing enhanced my appreciation for the clever visual storytelling and creative use of superpowers - two things sorely lacking from even some of the better superhero movies among the heaps of them offered to us these days.

I've seen nearly every movie in Pixar's highly impressive catalogue (except the Cars movies, which I've heard are geared towards much younger viewers). Wall-E and Inside Out are also brilliant pieces of work which every person should watch, but The Incredibles still gives me that magical combination of child-like thrill while being engaging on a deeper level. Because of this, I grew excited about the recent announcement that a sequel will finally be coming out in 2019, now that Brad Bird has finally settled on a story which he feels is equal to or better than the original. Nearly any Pixar release is worth getting excited for, but this one will have my movie and superhero nerd senses tingling extra hard. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mad Max Series (1979-2015)

Inspired by both my great love for the recent Mad Max: Fury Road and the fact that I had never seen the original Mad Max, I was taken by the urge to go back and watch all four films in the series again. Here's how I felt about them, all directed by George Miller:

Mad Max (1979)

My full review is here. This movie was one of the finest examples of brilliantly minimalist world-building, and it introduces the iconic Max Rockatansky, who is as human as he has ever been in the series. Gritty, raw, and not exactly the prettiest of films, but a ground-breaker nonetheless.

The Road Warrior (1982)

An amazing step forward from the already-impressive first film. With a significantly larger budget (though still puny by modern action movie standards), George Miller and his team tell a small-scale action story set within an evokative, apocalyptic world.

The story picks up an uncertain amount of time after the events in Mad Max. Max is drifting through the blasted wasteland that has become the world, due to nuclear war springing from conflicts over oil. Max drives along with his dog, scavenging for food, weapons, and the most precious commodity currently on the planet - petroleum. After thwarting an attempt to have his vehicle stolen by a fellow drifter who pilots a gyro-copter, the two come across a compound in the middle of the desert. The compound is built around a functioning oil derrick and is maintained and defended by a relatively peaceful group. However, they are under siege from a savage road gang led by The Humongous, a muscle-bound mutant who wants the  compound's oil for his gang's vehicles of war.

According to the movie notes, The Road Warrior was written after Miller had discovered the works of Joseph Campbell on the history of human stories, myths, and hero construction. This is clear when one sees how Max's story plays out in this movie as opposed to the first film. In Mad Max, the character was much more human and empathetic. In The Road Warrior, he follows the more abstract arc of the reluctant hero, as also exemplified in Leone's Man With no Name series or its antecedent Kurosawa samurai movies like Yojimbo. Max tries desperately not to care enough to help the compound defenders, and there is some solid drama that arises from his struggle.

The Road Warrior was when Miller's talent as an action director truly hit you with 300 horsepower. It could be seen in the first movie, but with greater financial resources for this second, it was abundantly clear that he is a master of the high-speed action chase. I'm usually fairly apathetic about such chases in movies, but I find Miller's coordination, fight choreography, and editing captivating. He would bring this to a completely different level with the much more recent Fury Road, but it was masterfully done in this much earlier effort.

The Humongous, a frighteningly imposing and intelligent
adversary for Max and the keepers of the compound.
In a more general sense, there are so many wonderful details to be detected or inferred from the world that Miller created here. This was present in Mad Max, but there are so many more eye-catching, imaginative additions in The Road Warrior. The vehicles are more creatively assembled into machines of war. The survivor's costumes are distinctive and memorable. The Humongous, imposing physical specimen that he is, has an eerie intelligence and articulateness. There are so many things that grab the attention and also raise fascinating questions about how exactly the world and these characters got to the states in which we see them. The answers would spoil the fun of imagining what they are, and I greatly appreciate this.

Modern action movie fans might balk at how stark and relatively simple much of The Road Warrior seems by the standards set in the last two decades. But this would be a mistake. This movie is an all-time great, and it holds up extremely well, just as I expect it to for many, many years to come.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

A curious viewing experience, but one which ultimately felt exactly how I had expected.

I estimate that, between 1985 and 1989, I probably saw this movie on TV no fewer than 10 times. Being between 10 and 14 years old during those viewings, any movie watched so often is bound to leave an indelible impression on me. When that movie features some of the most unique, bizarre, and eye-catching visuals you are likely to see, then it becomes unforgettable. This is definitely the case between Beyond Thunderdome and me, for better or worse.

As a refresher for those who have not seen the movie ever or in a long time, the story on Max Rockatansky's journey into, out of, back into, and back out of the post-apolcalyptic Bartertown. Bartertown is a small way-station city of sorts, where various survivors and scavengers gather to trade their goods and services. After Max arrives to track down a thief who stole his camels and other goods, he finds himself face-to-face with Auntie Entity (Tina Turner), founder of Bartertown. Auntie offers to procure and return all of Max's stolen goods in exchange for his disposing of her prime rival, Master Blaster. Things end up going right for Auntie but not for Max, who gets exiled into the surrounding wastelands. He is found and rescued by an enclave of children ranging from newborns to late-teens, all of who believe Max to be a prophesied savior. After a few bouts of odd confusion and attempted escape, Max has to rescue a handful of the children from Bartertown while also taking the fallen Master to use his smarts to help them rebuild a civilization. Their escape leads to a massive chase across the desert, with Max and the kids riding in a train, with Auntie and her soldiers pursuing them in various high-powered vehicles of war.

It had easily been over 25 years since I had watched this movie, and yet I remembered a surprising number of details. This speaks to the impressive visuals, costumes, sets, and situations in the film. Even now, three decades later, references to Thunderdome are understood by many people. Roger Ebert was right when he opined that the Max versus Blaster fight sequence in Thunderdome was one of the most innovative executions of movie fighting in several decades. That fight is still a really entertaining watch.

Max and some of the rebel kids, perhaps a misguided attempt
to appeal to slightly younger viewers at the time. Their
presence waters down much of the power in the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, that fight is one of the few things that still holds up well in the movie. The first act is still great. Max's approach into Bartertown, our learning just what it is and how it functions, and the grand fight are as thrilling and engaging as any adventure movie, old or new. But then come the children. In ways that evoked some of the sillier, sappier elements of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or even Return of the Jedi (both released within the two years before Thunderdome), this third Mad Max movie seemed to target a slightly younger audience. It feels even stranger after the far stronger, far grittier first 30 minutes of the movie. The entire storyline with the kids drags on a bit, and it only picks up once the chase finale kicks in. Of course, the chase is phenomenal, as George Miller simply does not do road chases that are anything less than amazing. But it only goes so far in erasing the half hour of drudgery preceding it.

While I'm picking on the kids, I'm not sure who was responsible for writing their odd, slang-infested dialect, but I found it an utter nuisance. Everything about the world of this film suggests that the Juves have been on their own for no more than ten or maybe fifteen years. Yet in that time, they seem to have developed an intricate, singular culture, complete with their own creation myths, rituals, and a bizarre dialect. Maybe it's just my knowledge of basic anthropology, but it simply doesn't wash. Rather, it merely comes off as contrived and artificial.

I can't help but feel like Thunderdome was a missed opportunity that was almost taken properly. The bookends of the movie are up to the standards set by the first two films, but the entire thing is bogged down by its middle section. It's still worth watching if you haven't seen it in a while, as it's only about 105 minutes long, but I can't help but feel very lucky that this is not how the series ended. Thanks to...

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The most metal movie ever. Full review here. It was awesome then. It is awesome now. It will eternally be awesome.

Final Thoughts: The Max series is a unique animal in so many ways. The original concept was a total game-changer, with the sequel only building on its potential. While the third movie saw a dip in consistent quality, I hardly expected it to signal a 30-year departure from the series.

And what other film series has had a 30-year hiatus, only to come back with the same director to make a film that completely blows away viewers all over the world? I can't think of one. It's only been after Fury Road that I realized that I had never given George Miller enough attention or credit as a film genius. I can hardly contain my enthusiasm about the planned sequel to Fury Road, but I also plan to track down the other Miller films which I haven't seen (like Babe, of all movies).