The essence of “The Mandalorian” resides in being able to identify in some way shape or form with the journey he or she is on. Whether it is Neo or Luke Skywalker, a character needs something to fight for, even if it is evil in some way. The structure of this episode: “Sanctuary” takes it into a more intimate setting but gives it a sense more of the familial which might be necessary because of its structure. The episode is also directed by Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron Howard. The episode in many ways feels like “Willow” in its aspect of romanticism but also sense of protection and defense. The episode is not overly dependent on special effects which might have been on purpose since Bryce has not directed much before per se. But what ends up happening is that the episode feels more in the arc of character structure especially what The Mandalorian has lost and gained but what he is willing to give up. The texture of the final moments plays for this with a certain character becoming almost a MacGuffin for the aspect of hope. Ultimately that aspect of trust or protection is brought into imbalance which causes the need for the plot to move forward. However the underlying texture of what path this bounty hunter/myth may be on continues to be murky as the best journeys are.
By Tim Wassberg
The tricky aspect about exploring a universe and living within it is a sense of expectation. In making the huge Star Wars films, sometimes the texture of the smaller character work like what “A New Hope” gets lost since that was essentially an independent film. Unfortunately as much as creativity can be a spark point among writers creating a bigger structure with such as large company such as Disney can be formidable. What “The Mandalorian” understands in its first episode is that everything doesn’t need to be rushed. While the series boasts more high end effects than most series, it gets what it needs to be. In a way that “The Gunslinger” should be done, it establishes The Mandalorian as a gun toting bounty hunter of old. The setting is basically for crime: The Wild West after the fall of the Empire which while essential has eliminated a certain order, however dictatorial to the Republic.
The first episode sets up a quest without seemingly like a quest. What director David Filoni and, by extension, show runner Jon Favreau has realized is by creating smaller scenes, even if it leads into a bigger showdown it makes the points more specialized. The Mandalorian does that two times after he sets down on planet. The humor is undeniable created in a gunfight of sorts that brings to mind “Way Of The Gun” as an influence…and if Chris McQuarrie ever finds his way into the Star Wars universe… But that said the first episode works because it tempers expectations while also give you enough tidbits of the original IP to engage which is what made “Rogue One” the best Star Wars movie of the new generation but also “Clone Wars” which helped show small character based episodes while balancing with the space opera which people expect.
By TIm Wassberg
The essence of what evil complies to in modern times sometimes directly involves correlation to way of life but also what it means to rule and protect. While the sequel “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” addresses this idea, it does so almost in a superficial way, both to appeal to wide audiences, have a distinctive female empowerment theme but also to build the texture of the Maleficent myth without really changing. The weird irony bakes in the idea of conventional happiness. The idea here revolves around what Aurora (played by Elle Fanning) actually wants. She wants to fall in love but must understand as Queen Of The Moors, she has a responsibility to protect them. She seems concerned but there is never any dire loss on her part that feels at all real. At one point, the possibility could verge on a sort of genocide but it is glossed over in a way, albeit this has to be cohesive for all audiences from the Disney perspective.
Angelina Jolie is radiant as Maleficent but most of the time it is very hard for her to emote from behind the altered make up and the contact lenses. There is so much more possibility and as the film progresses her, as expected, through a sense of rage. You can see the sadness in the character but it is never inexplicably brought out, which is not Jolie’s fault, it is the nature of the character. Maleficent, as a character, is undeniably defensive and hot headed which may cause her to act out of terms of fear when she has all the power. Like Captain Marvel, it at times can be hard to root for a character who almost cannot lose. That is why part of the progression here works but doesn’t take it to the nth degree possible.
The other side of the coin is brought the Queen character as played by Michelle Pfieffer. This is the most brazen character she has played in years but despite some deliciousness that brings to mind “Batman Returns”, it is not nuanced enough or motivated with enough concrete factors. This is likely not Pfieffer’s fault but an overall problem in terms perhaps of direction and a light script built to showcase effects. Something like Endgame or even Alice In Wonderland can pull at the heartstrings. That effort is surprisingly empty here. There is no sense of loss or bewilderment. The CG actually takes away when the base story is solid enough but become periphery when it is trying to handle too much else. Pfieffer’s character says she acts the way she does for the good of the kingdom but many times it simply comes off as vengeful and not strategic. If the standard sets true to do an action for the love of family, her motivations simply becomes a selfish act, and it belies any important value is under it.
As the lead per se in Elle Fanning, the diversity that she showed in something like “The Neon Demon”( granted this movie is utterly different and 180 tone) is missing here. Again this might be more just a script or direction problem but the essence of a Disney princess in the modern times is to be reflective both of old and new. And while Aurora voices her displeasure at conforming to norms, she easily leaves her people which is something Maleficent also does so the progression of thought seems a bit skewed.
There is also a subplot about Maleficent’s kind and her place in their mythology. This plays nice and well but is more set up to be the flash point of a later plot specific device. Chiwetel Ejiofor in a sense is the only character both on the Moor and human side who relays the texture of what is being fought for. He, likely on purpose, tries to underplay it. Jolie, at times, tries to play back but it is hard within the make up. The most telling of all the scenes is when Maleficent is alone and vulnerable not knowing what she is without the regal robes. Jolie’s styled black hair looks more like a siren hanging off of Elfin ears and it really gives a distinct different impression and a different view into the character. However, this is short lived.
Ultimately, “Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil” is keying into a powerful IP but also trying to keep itself within a certain confine of plot structure, effects, pliability and other textures without either offending or going too dark in worry of losing the audience. What ends up happening is characters in a fantastical world who are not quite archetypal but are also not fully fleshed out to the potential of their possible luminosity and dimension.
By Tim Wassberg
The resolution of creating something updated out of something nostalgic reflects in the idea of what the abstract idea the original created. When it is an expansion, it can work to a point (think “Tron: Legacy”) or some slight distinction in between (think the remake of “Aladdin”). This is the structure that makes it palpable for the current audience.
The new “Lion King” works in the same ideal yet from a different point of view. The aspect of animation compounded in the original reflected in a certain color palette where not everything can be perfect. Edges were impressionistic and not personified human traits. Whereas some of the intentions of the human performers here can be perceived (specifically at times with Seth Rogen’s Pumba) in this retelling, many of the performances are simply in between because of the backdrop. There is nothing inherently wrong with the production of the film but it is a straight remake of the animated film but with photorealism. Director Jon Favreau showed his adeptness with “The Jungle Book” but again it was more of structured retelling on the Kipling story versus the more nuanced per se approach of Andy Serkis with “Mowgli” for Netflix. Granted the build of certain iconic imagery really comes to bear in certain sequences.
The stampede sequence is undeniably effective and emotional when needed and the lair of the hyenas plays much darker than the original. The assimilation of Simba into the vegetarian collective has a different connotation in a way than when the original came out mainly because of current social consciousness. The one tendency of the original is that it keyed to the times whereas the new telling in an ironic way seems like a throwback despite the very diverse casting.
While the themes are universal, there seems a lack of spontaneity in the performances which is the paradoxical approach of what is essentially a photorealistic animation film. Here it seems more about the fact of what they could achieve beyond the aspect of whether they should which keys into an irony (which is the “Jurassic Park” paradox). With this approach, there is not really a way to shake it up from the script. One of the only times it happens is quite stark. It happens in a shot where the camera is placed way behind Timon, Pumba and Simba while they are walking away into their jungle hangout, Rogen gets a zinger or two in because the face didn’t need to be tracked.
The one steadying influence is that of James Earl Jones as Mufasa while Scar even though menacing doesn’t have the inherent irony of Jeremy Irons’ performance in the original. The climactic fire sequence plays well but the vision again has been perceived before. While certain remakes may work in terms of how they are captured live action (as with the aforementioned “Aladdin), this new iteration of “The Lion King” is both an achievement and yet feels normal.
By Tim Wassberg
The trepidation in doing a “Toy Story” sequel is why mess up or challenge a good thing. Money is usually the answer in these scenarios. “Toy Story 3” was such a fitting end with its undeniable odes to “Star Wars” lore and just essential drama that magnified and personified the essence of the journey of Woody & Buzz. “Toy Story 4” is a good movie through and through but one that didn’t necessarily need to be. Nonetheless, it works well all the same. This installment works more in all seriousness as an epilogue on existence of Woody. It is not about the kid’s room or the nursery anymore. It is set again the bigger world asking the question”Do I want more?” and “Who am I?” Wonderfully enough this theme tends to innately move the motivations of every single one of the characters here. By not having to give all the focus to each of the nursery toys, there almost seems to be broadening of character.
Annie Potts as Bo Peep definitely ups here game and the essence of a lost toy in the world does take on new meaning while essentially reflecting the mentality of a new age. The way she hangs and runs with Giggle McDimples just feels organic. Woody is struggling to catch up…which is part of the point of the exercise. The addition of Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, a doll with a flaw in an antique store feels misdirected at first but then, especially with the help of her Henchmen (sort of like Howdy Doody on steroids) there is definitely a sense of darkness but in a way misplaced enlightenment. The fact that some of the ending music from “The Shining” plays at one point just was undeniably elating. The different elements of existentialism moving through the story including the Id, hubris and the inner voice are all incredibly deep despite it being able to play very simple on the surface.
Even the introduction of Forky, a toy made out of trash by their kid Bonnie, evolves from that aspect. He just wants to be trash until he realizes his need to be but his first question is “Why am I alive?” On retrospect thinking, it can be quite filtered and intense in what the movie is talking about. That is a question that Gabby comes to terms with. Even Duke Kaboom, a racing toy played by Keanu Reeves, has a similar existential crisis. Rumor was that Keanu pushed the writers to build his character out more. And while that might be true, Duke’s journey has the same path and texture of needing to be as the other main characters. He was thrown out by his kid because he didn’t do what the commercial said he would. The irony and paradox of that statement both as an actor and as a character is, in ways, profound. Not wanting to give away any of the spoilers, this progression serves all the characters even Buzz with his basic thinking.
Towards the end of the film however which was interesting, there was a buzzy moment that very few films get when it hits the right notes finding heart and connection without being schmaltzy…and it wasn’t even with the main character. That said, though there is an almost subtle texture of “Forrest Gump” in the final moments. Not the same perception but it just about got there. “Toy Story 4” didn’t need to be but in that that it is, it is welcome as it is both a crowd pleaser but also an existential epilogue on the nature of a toy that is Woody. And Key & Peele are pretty good in it too.
By Tim Wassberg
The essence of the X-Men mythology has placed it with some ideals of archetypes but, with some of the actors involved, the texture of nuance is always an interesting progression in what is embraced and what is shown below the surface. This reviewer did interviews for “X-Men: The Last Stand” back in the last iteration of the cast before “First Class” but also visited the set of “X-Men: Apocalypse”. With “The Last Stand”, the approach involved the aspect of Jean Grey as well. However unlike Famke Jannsen’s iteration, there seems a times a lack of stakes or perhaps disconnection from Sophie Turner’s inhabiting of the character, much in the way of Captain Marvel in “Endgame”: she is so indestructible that the balance of her take down is somewhat like ants trying to destroy gods . That said, this installment is the most engrossing since “First Class”. The inclusion of Jennifer Lawrence works simply because of the structure of what it is setting up and that allows in true form the most connective tissue that motivates all the characters. Whether it be Tye Sheridan’s Psyclops or in a more pronounced fashion Beast played by Nicolas Hoult, “Dark Phoenix” has some more true acting from these performers because the entire proceeding is not overtaken by visual effects unlike some of the iterations before. It comes off more practical.
Also the characters, even more so, seem to engage in their baser desires at times which makes them more fully realized. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto seems both more conflicted but also at times more brutal than before. When he emerges in terms of his focus, it is interesting because it you can see him fighting against his own instincts (even though his character comes off more as supporting). James McAvoy as Professor X also has a more dynamic approach because his character is not the all wise. He makes mistakes and ego plays a part in this outing. These are superheroes but they are flawed and that is what this picture is allowing (perhaps in a darker way than perhaps Disney would approach it at a different time). Even Nightcrawler becomes brutal in a way not seen since “X2” when he was on the opposite viewpoint. That said, the story timing conversely is, at times, erratic. However this does not take away from the emotional notes. What scattershots the beats is Jessica Chastain and her minions. Chastain is on point in terms of her performance but there is not a reflective basis of her motivation. Her character’s origins are left to the ether which works to a point but not in the final revelation. “Dark Phoenix” in a great way handles many emotional beats in a way far superior to some of its predecessors thanks in part to director Simon Kinsberg who understands this mythology and the characters through and through. But endings, especially of an era, never are clean. They are messy. “Endgame” tried to do everything and reflected emotional but many plot holes still remained. “Dark Phoenix” writes a different story than the one previous to “The Last Stand” but in doing some creates something more contextual even if the final shot reflects a vague contentment.
By Tim Wassberg