Review: Dark Phoenix

I’m trying to improve my review styles by being more terse, so I’m going to try to limit myself to 350 words. Feel free to give feedback.

Dark Phoenix feels like a pre-MCU superhero film.

It’s not bad, by any means. I got a discounted ticket, so I figured I’d see it early before looking at reviews.

Dark Phoenix trailer courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Great special effects, tremendous cast and acting, writing that didn’t take me out of the mood, and a decent soundtrack don’t help it rise to the point of being memorable.

The tone feels much darker than Marvel’s superhero films, but it’s not that much darker than X-Men Apocalypse or Logan, other 20th Century Fox entries.

I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that just casually goes unexplained, and the big elephant in the room is how Dark Phoenix compares to Captain Marvel.

The answer is:

Not great, but not poorly.

Throughout Dark Phoenix, there are some really cool special effects moments (and ones that are good enough to make me forget that I’m looking at special effects). The X-Men universe is proving to be a great exploration of some darker social themes, especially with mutant prejudice, though Dark Phoenix is no Logan.

Fight scenes are intense, but there’s a lot of getting to the chase that doesn’t answer any questions. It doesn’t have a whole lot of effective comic relief, but it’s not quite satisfying enough with a purely dramatic approach. It’s serious, but fails to build emotional payoff.

Ultimately, it feels like it lives in the shadow of Captain Marvel. Pretty much every gripe I had with Captain Marvel is absent. However, while Captain Marvel was a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie, Dark Phoenix is just a 7/10 movie.

Basically, Dark Phoenix takes itself too seriously, and doesn’t go off into deep exploration of its subject and themes. However, it’s a good movie, and I certainly enjoyed it. If I get another discount, or if it comes to streaming services, I might watch it again because there’s some seriously cool special effects and moments throughout.

Review of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Went and saw the third John Wick film yesterday.

I was happy with it, but it wasn’t quite as good as I was expecting. Solid, still, and I’m actually more confident about the next film (because of course they set up another film in the series).

If you just want spectacle, Parabellum delivers. The storytelling is decent, and matched by tremendous visuals and acting, but there’s too little focus.

I’m going to be avoiding any spoilers in the review.

Continue reading “Review of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

Review of Avengers: Endgame

I went and saw Avengers: Endgame today, and I was not disappointed. I will keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so feel free to enjoy.

I was somewhat on the fence about Endgame. I enjoyed Captain Marvel, but I was worried about some of the choreography (I felt Captain Marvel suffered from over-long fights) and the impact of a new character introduced so recently in the MCU on a story which is predominantly about the characters we’ve been following for years now.

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Review and Reflection: Captain Marvel

I put off seeing Captain Marvel for a while because it seems to be my norm over the past week to procrastinate, but I’ve also been a little less excited to see it because I saw a good mix of positive and negative reviews from critics I liked: I wanted to see it, but I wasn’t willing to put up with a crowded theater to see it.

So I finally went today (actually a couple days before the publication, but at the time of writing it’s only been a couple hours since I actually saw the movie), and I was actually really pleasantly surprised.

Review

I’d say that Captain Marvel is a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie. I normally don’t use numbers, but I think it’s a good illustrative point here.

I actually thought all the acting was really good; I’d heard complaints about stiffness, and there were a couple points in dialogue where things wore thin, but also a lot of moments that were really poignant, humorous, or exciting, so I can’t critique the writing too much overall.

Pacing is definitely an issue. I feel like there’s some sort of Marvel convention that says “Thou shalt have movies be more than two hours long” that drove some of the writing decisions. Upon looking it up, this is not true, but for some reason perfectly correlates with the MCU movies I’ve seen in theaters, as opposed to the ones I’ve seen at home (e.g. Thor).

With that said, there’s a lot of somewhat drawn out exposition and even fight scenes, which is odd because for most of the film the pacing feels really solid. Some early scenes feel over-long, namely the first fight between Captain Marvel (or, as she is known at that point, Vers) and the Skrull.

The movie starts with an amnesia plot; Vers doesn’t remember her prior life as Carol Danvers, and eventually figures out who she is over the course of the film (by about the two-thirds mark she remembers who she really is, courtesy of help from old friends; I’m guesstimating because I wasn’t timing the movie).

The big problem here is that we figure out who she is before she is, and the trailers make it clear too. For some reason, either we’re given a larger glimpse into the character’s mind than they themselves have (which, admittedly, is not impossible), or she’s remarkably stubborn about figuring out who she is despite knowing that she can’t remember anything and then suddenly getting memories or flashbacks.

There is a very small attempt to squelch this when another character mentions that she could have had memories implanted (when she has flashbacks that override the amnesia), but the counterpart to this is that the people who would have implanted the memories seem very keen to find out what they are and also act on information they acquired from those memories.

Or, to put it more simply: It’s the one “idiot ball” moment in the film where a character doesn’t realize everything the audience knows and doesn’t have a good reason to do so, and it’s the main character doing it right in the middle of the main plot. Just a tad frustrating, and one of the reasons why I describe Captain Marvel as a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie: if the audience were kept in the dark, or Carol Danvers had been quicker to re-emerge, it would’ve been great (or at least good). As it stood, it was just a little bit underwhelming in execution, and amnesia plots are overused as a secondary device, much less a primary one.

Ironically, I think it’s probably the final fight scenes that go on too long despite the clear intent to make them epic and flashy. The triumphant battles go beyond what they need to do to show us the power levels of the characters and make a good narrative point, and as much as the eye-candy is up to Marvel’s traditional quality (albeit, a little flashy even by their standards, something I’ll permit because Captain Marvel typically uses powers that manifest as pure light and energy).

A lot of people have argued that it doesn’t feel like Carol Danvers has a personal stake, but I didn’t get that at all. Except in the fight scenes. They drag on and nobody ever seems to really be impacted unless they’re a faceless extra, and even the lesser henchmen take a giant beating and just keep going. It feels like they had a giant CGI budget to use and insisted on using it all, but it just comes across as spectacle. I think if I watch Captain Marvel again, I might actually skip parts of these scenes; they’re well choreographed, but do nothing to actually move the story forward.

I’m not a huge MCU superfan (though I would describe myself as a lesser fan; I’ve liked them all), but I’d rate Captain Marvel in with the others. I don’t think it’s up to the same level as Infinity Wars was, but it’s definitely at the same level of quality as most of the other character origin films.

One thing that did surprise me a little was the fact that the movie was definitely a little crasser than it had to be. I get that they wanted to play up Carol Danvers (both pre-Kree and post-Kree) as someone who would overcome any obstacle, but there were some unnecessary, somewhat crude remarks by male characters that felt forced (particularly a line about “You know why they call it a cockpit?”) and weren’t even as effective at conveying the sexism she faced as some other events that cropped up (scenes where she is told that she’ll never fly as a pilot and where her father is giving her guff do the same without resorting to crudity). I know that Marvel’s moving toward embracing a PG-13 rating, but combining this with some of the other cussing in the film would have put me off of seeing it with young children in tow. I think it could have been as poignant with a little less explicit language and a little more illustration (and, given some of the things that we see fragments of later in the film, I think they may have actually cut out some of those scenes in favor of the more crude ones, which seems a tragedy).

Generally, despite this, I liked it. Other than feeling that it was a little over-long, I thought it was definitely worth watching. If I were the director, I would’ve trimmed it down a little (or added more context to justify the length of certain scenes), but there were a lot of really good moments and I was into it. Samuel L. Jackson was fantastic, Brie Larson did a tremendous job (there were a couple rough spots, but I put them down to the writers), and it was certainly worthy of the Marvel brand.

Reflection

Heads-up: I’ve avoided spoiling as much as possible in my review, but my reflections don’t do that so much.

The strongest points in the film come when we see a heroic struggle; this isn’t surprising, since it’s a point that I seize on all the time, but it’s still one that is quite interesting.

Carol Danvers has a two-fold struggle: the internal struggle of mastering herself and coming to grips with her identity, and the external struggle of figuring out what to do with her life and taking the fight to the Kree, who turn out to be the villains.

That’s quite an interesting side to the story, even if it’s not fully executed.

There’s a moment in the ending of the film where Danvers is being interrogated (for lack of a better term) by the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree AI overlord, and she is thrown into her own stream of memories, watching herself fail over and over again.

Her victory comes when she returns to those memories, watching the next bit: the part when she gets back up after failing.

It’s quite a powerful moment, and perhaps the best in the film, because it sums up what makes Danvers different from the Kree: being willing to get up and keep going, always improving herself, rather than sticking with the situation she’s in. By contrast, the Kree are more involved in their own lives, not wanting to change or grow and suppressing anything that might challenge their assumptions of superiority.


Wrapping Up

Captain Marvel was a good movie, and I’m glad I went to see it. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it certainly is worth seeing if you’re at all interested.

A Review & Analysis of Storytelling in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

I’m not always a huge fan of Disney’s policies. They’re a massive corporation, and their pursuit of increasingly restrictive copyright laws is something that is a major concern of mine.

However, I’m also an advocate for storytelling, and occasionally I have to go to the theater with my family and see something solid, and Disney usually delivers that.

Anyway, despite the fact that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, Disney has already released its version of The Nutcracker, an interesting take on the classic ballet.

For those who are totally oblivious to its existence, here’s a quick trailer:

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms trailer, courtesy of Disney.

I’ve sort of settled into a review/analysis format when I talk about movies (see my previous Christopher Robin and Incredibles overviews on the Loreshaper Games blog), so let’s start with my review, which I will keep free of spoilers.

The Review

Disney taking fairy tales and turning them into franchises is not new, nor is their big-budget live-action formula.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” takes that approach to the classic Nutcracker story, with a fairly large departure from the standard format in which the story is told. These do not get in the way of the general conceit, but do make it substantially more complicated.

As a result, it is impossible to say that the film is a faithful adaptation of the ballet or the short stories that inspired it, even though it includes both musical interludes and plot devices (such as many of the characters) who are drawn directly from the original.

The film centers itself around a young protagonist, Clara Stahlbaum, who is experiencing her first Christmas after the loss of her mother and coming to terms with the whole ordeal and moving on with her life. Along the way she enters a fantastical realm and does the standard Hero’s Journey stuff, but that’s pretty much all stories so don’t count it out just because it’s orthodox.

I’d classify it as being fairly character driven, and this is one of the strongest strengths, due to the incredibly solid acting delivered throughout the whole film.

Clara is striving to come to terms with her mother’s death and reunite their family. Loss and coping seems to be something of a common theme for children’s movies, with the Incredibles 2 taking a much milder approach to this in the form of coping with Helen Parr’s new job as opposed to the literal death of Clara’s mother, and in the analysis section I’ll give some theories as to why. However, I will say that there is a good connection between her internal struggles and the struggles unfolding around her, which makes the plot flow really quickly without being too confusing (of course, I am not the film’s target audience).

This film is part of a recent trend of Disney movies aimed at younger audiences that treat their viewers as intelligent, like Christopher Robin was earlier this year.

In general, I thought it was solidly executed in all counts. The acting was solid, the music was quite on point (I’m not even a fan of most of the parts Tchaikovsky’s ballet, despite generally liking his other work, but they don’t over-use the Sugar Plum Fairies motif until you’re sick and tired of it, so I count that as a win), and the CGI was flawless.

The characters are sometimes a little flawed. The character of Clara was fantastic and is a great example of showing heroic growth in a film protagonist, but the main villain (who is revealed in a twist that isn’t incredibly surprising, but this is a movie made for children) comes across as a little shallow (albeit reasonably shallow, as I’ll get into more detail about in the analysis).

One of the things that I do have to say here is that Disney does a good job of paying homage to many of the elements of the original tale, including ballet sequences and set-dressing that is iconic and recognizable. The storyline itself is quite different than the original fairy tale, so don’t expect anything similar in terms of that.

The Four Realms as a setting element is something of a weakness. While Clara’s travels into a Narnia-esque realm set a good window-dressing, there’s an odd feeling that we didn’t really get a good look at the setting, but we also know more than we need to know about it.

Mid-movie setting exposition is tricky, and they did about as good a job as they could, but there were places mentioned and briefly explored that didn’t matter to the plot, and that’s one of the sins of the newer Star Wars movies that Disney should have learned from.

Also, there is literally a character named Sugar Plum in this movie. Sure, I get it, Sugar Plum Fairies, but do you have to name one Sugar Plum? Too saccharine for my tastes.

The Verdict

All-in-all, I’d say that this is a good movie. A star-studded cast delivers a PG-rated performance that’s not going to go down in history as great, but is also not the worst use of your time.

I’ll be honest; I think that this could be a good teaching movie because of the fact that it has fairly little objectionable content and is really rich in symbolism and depth, not to mention the fact that it ties in naturally to a short story that you could read and therefore allows you to use the film as an educational enrichment.

It’s not a Christopher Robin or Lion King tier movie, where it’ll be something worth returning to, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as a cynical cash-grab. If you’re going to the movies anyway, consider it.

Also, it’s not a musical. Misty Copeland is in the film, and she’s fantastic, but you see as much of her in the credits sequence as in the movie itself.

Basically, I watched this movie because I was tagging along, but I thought it was quite good. If I had to quantify it, I’d give it a well-earned four out of five stars.

A Star Wars Rant

This film’s storyline should have been used in The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens to establish Rey’s character.

It’s really strong and ties into all the places that you could want it to go. Change all the set dressing and actors, and you’ve got a perfect setup here.

This movie proves that a lot of the complaints about Disney’s perceived practices are invalid; the film has an incredible diverse cast, all of whom are talented. It has enough development in each of the central characters to make them stand out, without detracting from Clara’s growth. It has comedic relief. It has moments that hit on deep sadness and fear.

The Last Jedi could have had these things too, but it didn’t follow the Disney formula.

The Analysis

There’s a lot to analyze here, and I really thought that this movie was really good at working the Disney magic, even if they didn’t always get the payoff they desired.

Most people are probably aware of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, but I think that we can take a step back to just plain Jungian interpretation of many of the archetypal symbols that show up in this film.

I’m not sure what Disney’s in-house writing guide says about storytelling; I know that they have something like the Hero’s Journey as an in-house document that they use to crank-out award winning screenplays, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s really in-depth, and that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is going all-in on that symbolism.

And, really, it should. The Nutcracker as a fairy tale has clear and evident symbolic importance to most of its elements, and Disney’s version plays with that a little while being conservative in many ways.

The Known and the Unknown

A large part of any good story is knitting together the known and the unknown. Without having the known world represented, you lack any connection to humanity, but failing to enter the unknown leaves the storytelling exercise pointless.

Stories about people going to work, coming back home, and going to bed, then repeating the process, tend to be boring unless there’s some struggle that makes that process difficult.

This is because, as Jordan Peterson describes in his Maps of Meaning, the storytelling process is about mediating decisions that come about when the unbearable present meets the unknown future.

To put it in simpler Jungian dichotomies, there is the known and the unknown, and a liminal bridge between them. To bring balance between these two things is to bring the mind into wholeness.

Clara’s Animus

The story starts off with Clara’s life in chaos. Her family is beginning to celebrate her first Christmas after her mother’s death, and Clara is clearly not emotionally prepared for this.

She is told that she must keep up appearances, or that certain behavior is expected, or that it is important to maintain traditions. This is the immature animus–the avatar of order–failing to speak to her.

She is lost and drowning in the unknown; she doesn’t know what to do now that her mother is lost.

The feminine often symbolizes opportunity, especially in Jungian interpretations. While the full reasons for this are beyond the scope of this analysis, it is relatively simple to claim that the death of Clara’s mother represents the loss of this optimism about the unknown. It is an end to the positive perceived valance of the unknown that fosters turning the unknowable spaces around us into knowable spaces.

The conflict, therefore, stems from having an imbalance; the world is chaotic and this chaos confronts Clara on account of her mother’s demise. The loss of her mother has stripped Clara of any optimistic worldview about the future; the unknown now represents, quite reasonably, only death to her, because she has lost sight of the potential for a positive unknown.

Entering the Four Realms is an opportunity for Clara to undergo a Hero’s Journey, initiating a growth of character that could also be classified as a bildungsroman.

This controlled and willing encounter with the unknown represents the formation of an animus within Clara’s psyche; she goes after the prize of knowledge, of being able to open a gift left behind by her mother in an egg (symbolic of fertile potential) which can only be opened by a key which has been lost in the Four Realms.

This animus is a means of structuring the world into order once again; by encountering the Four Realms, which were brought to life by her mother and exist in a sort of magical space, she is able to put her thoughts into perspective.

It can also be said that the magical Four Realms have a parallel in similar stories such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is that they carry deep symbolism related to introspection and reflection; they are not only literal places that the characters are able to visit, but a place where the objective reality that filters into consciousness is no longer the governing force and instead the mythic symbolism of the subconscious can filter in.

Rodents and Owls

One of the interesting symbols in the film is that of the rodent. The Mouse King is a key figure in the film, but he winds up being a help rather than a hindrance. The counterpart to them is an owl, an assistant of Drosselmeyer, who is to look over Clara, and who provides her with guidance in a couple points throughout the film.

Rodents are vermin, and typically symbolize chaos and the unknown. However, the owl represents a counterpoint in both representing order and wisdom but also preying upon vermin. Despite this, Drosselmeyer’s owl ignores the rodents throughout the film (for a reason that becomes symbolically important near the film’s conclusion).

Near the opening of a film Clara and her brother try futilely to capture a mouse in their attic, which is significant because it reflects Clara’s inability to adapt her psyche to the uncertainty of her new life devoid of maternal care.

Later in the film, but  still in an early scene, Clara passes down a hallway lined with owl mosaics (I believe on both sides of the hallway, though I only noticed the mosaics half-way through the scene and the far side was obscured in such a manner that I cannot be 100% positive). However, in a brief shot the owl mosaics on one side have been replaced with mouse mosaics. At the end of this passageway, she is brought into the Four Realms.

Over the course of the film, the owl plays a relatively minor role but appears in key scenes in which Clara is experiencing doubt. It reflects the return of the known world’s relevance to Clara’s psyche, allowing her to return to a mental state of order that has been difficult to find since her mother’s death.

It is the rodent, however, as an avatar of the unknown, that is perhaps more important to consider.

The Mouse King is a frequent adversary throughout the earlier parts of the film, but in the latter parts of the film he turns into an ally for Clara and the Nutcracker (whose role is much less relevant to this analysis; he exists primarily to support Clara, but he still provides some deeply symbolic elements to the story).

This transition from enemy to ally–paralleled by the character of Mama Ginger, who is in league with the Rat King–provides the psychological counterweight to the undesirable elements of chaos.

By discovering that the unknown does not necessarily need to be feared, Clara develops as a character into a heroic figure, fulfilling the type that has been set out before her.

The Triumph Over Doubt

In the film, it is clear that the main enemy is not necessarily the unknown, but rather fear and doubt. This is a core Jungian psychological concept. This uncertainty is created by an inability to balance the psyche, something that Clara overcomes.

But it also provides the basis for the main villain’s motivations; Sugar Plum (ugh, that name), who was “abandoned” like Clara upon Marie’s death, is incapable of overcoming that doubt and fear.

This imbalance leads to her seeking to become a tyrant; an out-of-balance representation of Jung’s “dreadful father”, whose role in the universe is to pursue order above all else, even at the expense of change.

The usurpation of Clara’s rightful place as Queen of the Four Realms and the oppression of the populace that comes alongside Sugar Plum’s ascension, as she creates an army of tin soldiers who lack individual agency and awareness, is a classic example of this archetype playing out.

At one point, Sugar Plum explains clearly that with her army, she will never be hurt again.

This symbolizes the key message of the story: It is necessary to accept reality to move on with one’s life, but that process requires self-discovery and acceptance of agency.

Wrapping Up

There’s other things that can be said here, but I’m not necessarily the person to say them and I have constraints on my time, so they’ll have to go unsaid for now.

Basically, I felt like the cinematography was well-done, the characters were generally vivid, and the storytelling had that Disney magic that comes from a deep understanding of the psychology of stories.

Were there missteps? Yes. But I don’t think they grew to the point of detracting from the journey, and Nutcracker is an interesting example of how the Hero’s Journey can manifest, albeit one wrapped in silly window dressing.

Why Star Wars is Still Good

Yeah, so I’m going to try to write more stuff up here this year. Show that I’m alive. Since I got loreshapers.net up and going, this is back to being well and truly just my personal blog, and I’m also working past my “write something formal” stage and (hopefully) coming out of my shell as a better, more flexible writer.

Today’s topic: Star Wars, and particularly the Last Jedi. Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading “Why Star Wars is Still Good”