Friday, January 20, 2023

Reviews from gulag: 2022's junk drawer, part 1

There is unfortunately no theme I can think of to bind the following reviews together besides "they're all animated," and, hell, none are even animated in the same medium.  I don't know, maybe the theme is "they are actually good in inverse proportion to how much they're appreciated," but that's just the theme of, like, all fucking existence.  Nevertheless, here's reviews of Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, and DC League of Super-Pets.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO'S PINOCCHIO

The fact that it's named Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio is a tiny bit aggravating, not least because it's reminiscent of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, another stop-motion animated film attributed to a celebrated Gothic dark fantasy filmmaker who has no business claiming sole authorship of itMark Gustafson co-directed, and given the technology, I strongly expect he did more than "co-direct"but you know, it gets a pass.  2022 was lousy with Pinocchios, and there was obviously a need for Del Toro and Netflix to differentiate it from the other ones.   These include a cheapo Russian cash-in with Pauly Shore, and, even more depressingly, Robert Zemeckis's quintuple-down on poorly-received disaster-projects, coming in the form of Disney's remake of their own 1940 Pinocchio that's so plainly bad that you don't need to see it, you can smell it from afar.  It is entirely probable that GDelT's P (hereafter just Pinocchio, thanks) is indeed the best of these.  It has been anointed such, and, because Del Toro fanboys are everywhereeven people who historically have not been fanboys for the extremely-uneven, I'm-gonna-just-put-it-out-there-not-that-good filmmaker have turned out to have nursed a secret desire to join the clubit has been anointed one of the year's great animated films.  I can sort of see the impulseit's been a very bad year for animation (though I'm not sure "more than half of 2022's major animated features are mediocre or worse" is the consensus).  But, you know, I'm particularly enervated by the applause Del Toro has managed to gather upon himself on social media by taking the brave, heretical stand that "animation is a medium, not a genre!", which in A.D. 2022 is such a lamely self-impressed "cow says moo!" thing to say that I doubt it would ever occur to, for instance, Phil Tippet to actually voice it; I'm also not sure why Del Toro, adapting children's literature, thinks he has somehow not made a children's movie.  Is it just because his titular character and his titular character's sidekick are uglier than typical?

Well, anyway: best of its vintage or not, this Pinocchio still sucks.  Strikingly, it sucks in one of the ways I know that Zemeckis's remake sucks, as it also bears the kind of disgusting 2020s literalism that sees Pinocchio use his nose's penchant for extending in the presence of the lies he's uttered as the superpowered solution to a tactical problemwhich I thought we all agreed was a savage, incompetent travesty of the source material, but, wow, I guess we didn't.  It's the same premise that pornographic jokes use, and this didn't caution anybody, it seems.

I am, I should disclose, not especially fond of the source material, which I think I tried reading once (I'm fairly positive I didn't succeed, which makes me less literate than many 19th century Italian children, but so it goes); but as I've remarked before I'm really just not fond of late 19th/early 20th century children's literature in general, and the episodic, moralistic grab-bag of Pinocchio in particular is a drag.  Accordingly, Pinocchios have an uphill climb for me: I respect the 1940 film almost solely as a function of the strides it made regarding animation and, if I'm being really honest, probably out of a subconscious unwillingness to accept I outright dislike it.

This Pinocchio, however, makes me feel like an ungrateful shit.  It corrects a lot of the problems that inhere to the source material, ironing out much of the lumpiness: I approve, for example, of how Geppetto (David Bradley) has now been granted a tragic dead-son backstory that leads him to craft in a drunken fugue a wooden simulacrum of the child he's lost out of the very pine that grew out of his son's grave (the creature, given life by fairy magic, is voiced by Gregory Mann, who, incidentally, also voices Geppetto's dead son, Carlo).  Likewise do I approve of the ways in which Pinocchio's adventures on the stage with traveling showman Volpe (Cristoph Waltz) now arise so organically out of his frictions with his creator-father and their circumstances, which, lo and behold, gives this Pinocchio something resembling structure.  Now, I don't think I approve of the very stupid "did you know I have a tense relationship with Catholicism?" conversation that Del Toro has Pinocchio have, about how the townsfolk seem to like Geppetto's wooden carving of Jesus on the cross more than they like him.  I'm pretty sure the townsfolk would also be squicked out by the wooden Jesus if it came to life, and frankly they're shockingly tolerant of Pinocchio as it standsrural Italians wouldn't treat Roma as well as they treat Geppetto's insolent crime against God.  But I am very impressed with the way the Cricket (Ewan McGregor) is roped into the proceedings, as a preexisting inhabitant of the pine tree that becomes the pine boy, so that when McGregor's film-opening narration describes him as he who "lived in Pinocchio's heart," it's actually a very literal statement of fact, though it's also a very beautiful turn of phrase.  The screenplay by Del Toro and Patrick McHale absolutely deserves to have these innovative strengths acknowledged.

They are, unfortunately, very happy to introduce a whole host of brand new problems all of this Pinocchio's own.  The most overt is undoubtedly the decision to resituate Pinocchio into the interwar years, and dispense with the particular juvenile delinquency that Collodi was out to curb in favor of a broadside against Del Toro's old hobbyhorse, fascism.  This isn't a problem fundamentally"Pinocchio vs. the Blackshirts" isn't a terrible idea, though it's a little annoying in execution, because depending on the scene, this movie takes place no later than 1926 (Rudolph Valentino is evidently still alive, and, whatever else, Carlo himself died in the closing days of World War I) or all the way into 1943 (the Allies are bombing Italy), which is all defensible as "a choice," I suppose, in ways that "this movie set in Italy in either 1926 or 1943 has a helium party balloon in it" is just plain "broad ignorance of the time period" (oh, I'm a crank, maybe it's a hydrogen kid's party balloon).  But even if it's an interesting new approach, it's astonishing how surface-level its engagement is with fascism, and it's really remarkable how much less frightening World War II winds up in Del Toro and Gustafson's hands than merely boozing and smoking cigars were, back in the 1940 film.  It doesn't help that this is where the vignettishness that Del Toro and McHale's screenplay had heretofore kept at bay kicks in hard, and while this sorry-Willie-it's-a-kid's-movie keeps us very safe and cozy, preempting our literally-blockheaded protagonist from doing any more than dipping more than a single wooden toe into fascism, this stretch also insists to a really unreasonable degree that we're supposed to give a shit about Pinocchio's bully from the first act, a character who previously had about three lines, all boilerplate rudeness, but who now, as a fellow member of the Lictor Youth with Pinocchio, gets a whole loosely-sketched arc regarding his own daddy issues, basically elevated as a co-protagonist for a whole act of a movie that I guess has four acts, and for no obvious reason besides Del Toro's impulses.

Not nearly as showy as the "political statement" that tops out at "Mussolini is a poop" (the songs in this semi-musical film are all pretty fucking awful), but far more destabilizing for the project as a whole, you'll remember that I mentioned this story's narrator is the Cricket who-lives-in-Pinocchio's-heart.  Remember that I said that this was a really nice touch?  Well, this Cricket is separated from his "home" for well over an hour of screentime, which is a funny way to treat the character tasked with being the little fellow's conscience.  Not funny ha-ha, mind you: the Cricket is the vehicle for an endless number of pretty wan slapstick gags about being negligently squashed, and I'd go so far as to say that getting quasi-humourously crushed is this character's primary contribution to this story.  Oh, and while it's more a matter of taste than anything else, and of course the rambunctious wooden lad is supposed to be sassmouthed and immature, but I found this Pinocchio kind of insufferable, mostly as a result of his material, partly as a result of Mann's piping, irritating vocal performance that always feels like Pinocchio is pretending to be unaware of social mores and the meanings of words in order to get on people's nerves, and, yeah, it's probably partly as a result of having no adequate scene partners for half the film.

That leaves us with the whole, "but it's Del Toro doing creepy horror-inflected stop-motion animation, which is the draw here, yes?"  I mean, yes, it is, though one of the bigger reasons I grew weary with this iteration of Pinocchio is that the puppet-boy's initially-unsettling design (Geppetto didn't really finish him) gets boring within minutes of making his acquaintance.  Even so, this Pinocchio obliges you to spend two hours with what amounts to a talking brown stick.  There's some productive stuff going on with the deliberately "rickety" stop-motion, belied by some technical virtuosity with the camera movement, but the design, the thing that you can usually somewhat rely on with Del Toro, is disappointingly bland: the whale is grotesque but underrealized and kind of dumb, and it's still the third best thing in the movie.  If it weren't for the Blue Fairy and her sister Death (both Tilda Swinton)sort of meshing the popular image of angels with the terrifying ophanim as described in the Book of Ezekiel, winged statues with blinking eyes in their feathersI'd be at a complete loss to name anything from this film I'll remember a week from now.  The epilogue is very good, and weirdly mature, I'll grant it that without hesitation; but man, it's from a significantly worthier movie, and if you do want a children's cartoon about Death, late 2022 gave us a much better option.  It even has a Pinocchio and a Cricket in it.  What a bizarre zeitgeist.

Score: 5/10

APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD

There comes a moment in Apollo 10 1/2, and I'm sure it will vary from viewer to viewerit'll depend, I think, on how aware you are of time passingthat you will realize, a little shocked, that this entire film really is nothing but an aging Gen Xer yammering the living fuck away about his childhood in the late 1960s.  I think it happened for me sometime shortly after he started listing contemporary sitcoms he'd likedaround the eleventh or twelfth show he'd named, which is only about half of the ones he eventually lists, it hit me that the whole movie would be like this.  I was, frankly, a little relieved that this turned out to be the case, for when that moment arrived for me, I said to myself, "well, it's been thirty minutes already, if the entire thing isn't an ambling monologue, then it'll be awfully annoying if now we have to shift gears into an actual story."

Theoretically, there is "a story" here, though it's not even really much of an organizing principle, and more of a pure-and-simple marketing hook, presumably because even this film's writer-director, Richard Linklater, whose name effectively promises this kind of wanky shagginess, couldn't have gotten away with making a new rotoscoped animated feature totally upon the basis of "I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time" times 98 minutes.  Would anyone have been interested, and would even Netflix at its most cavalier have been that fast-and-loose with its money?  (As for how it fits in with, or stands up to, his previous rotoscoped animation ventures, A Scanner Darkly and particularly Waking Life, I expect it to be vaguely recalled as "the other one" than as a free-standing work of particular merit.)  Well, the story, such as it is, involves young Stanley (Milo Coy), the youngest of the seven children belonging to NASA's most boring bureaucrat (Bill Wise) and his wife (Lee Eddy).  His childhood is related to us by his older self (Jack Black); he's just one more kid in the NASA suburb on the outskirks of Houston, TX.  Throughout, Stanley recalls fantasizingthough the film goes out of its way not to stress this as "a fantasy"about being drafted into the space program as a secret prepubescent astronaut, because they accidentally made the capsule too small.  Accordingly trained and tested, eventually Stanley precedes Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon.  This is very cute.  This is also a very small part of the movie, which isn't necessarily bad, given the movie's goals.  It is, however, there to be gotten, and it's too relaxed a movie to insist upon you getting it in any particularly keenly-felt way, and that is sort of a problem: it's basically a film about how a kid was so awed by the moon landing (though he might've fallen asleep there at the end) that he dreamed his way into being part of it.  It's a very "for all mankind" thing, along with pangs of small-c conservative "we don't do anything cool anymore because we can't, and maybe we shouldn't, but I don't like it" nostalgia, and it probably should be a more emotional experience than it winds up.

Otherwise, it's just a collection of anecdotes and cultural data such as interest Linklater, presented in a pretty clean and appealing style, both in terms of its impressionistic meandering through his memories as well as his sociological insights from an adult perspective (or his shrugging absence of insight, which is sometimes more interesting, to the extent we can treat the elder Stanley as a "character," distinct from Linklater, who's being "studied").  It is quite nice-looking: the default style is sort of Highlights as rotoscoped animation (the rotoscoping itself is quite smooth and unobtrusive, still a little uncannily hyperreal as the form usually is, and always should be, but in this case mostly deployed only to quietly insist on the naturalism of the moments it's recreating); and I really do like how this cartoon simulates "focal depth," with the backgrounds sort of hazing with doubled-vision, which I believe, without doing any checking whatsoever, is a stylistic fillip entirely unique to this project.  Contemporary TV and film footage is usually (but not always) given a more abstracted look, just blocks of colors (that are then rotoscoped more in tune with the form's more alien, unpleasantly-real complexion).  Comics and the like are even more abstracted.  It's incredibly warm and fuzzy and pleasant.  I'm not sure I'll ever be moved to watch it again, but, hey, I wouldn't not watch it again: in a year full of arrogant memoirist works, it's a little refreshing and even charming to see the full-tilt self-indulgence of such a project rendered so incredibly transparent about its intentions, not even pretending to justify itself as art for other people.  Like, okay, Linklater, you've been good to me, so I'll consent to listen to you drone away for 98 minutes about... wow, you really are explaining how your mom prepared you and your siblings' school lunches, that's bold in its banality.

At least it has specificity in its navel-gazing; and it's colorful and amusing; it is, thank God, appropriately-sized.  Maybe it's even cool to have a window into the finely-grained social history of a world I could never have experienced for myself.  If this were about the 90s, it could go fuck itself.  If that all suggests to you that I think it beats the absolute living shit out of Boyhood, I'll tell you what, you're right.

Score: 6/10

DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS

That is a complete corporate cross-branding abomination of a titleoh, it's DC's super-pets? ohhhh... I mean, for fuck's sakebut I think it says something complimentary about League of Super-Pets that this title is the worst thing about it.  It helped, undoubtedly, that I went in with incredibly low expectations: it was in fact a "fine, whatever, might as well" watch to go along with Black Adam, DC's only "real" superhero film of the past year*, and of course that is probably the best way to watch this movie (and it's definitely the best order to watch them in, although this came out first).  Both are Dwayne Johnson vehicles, so there's that further commonality, and in this he plays Krypto the Super-Dog, pet to Superman (John Krasinski) and fellow last survivor of Krypton, latterly threatened by the encroachment of Superman's girl friend Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde) into their lives.  That's the situation as it stands when Lex Luthor (Marc Maron, presumably essaying history's most off-model Lex Luthor vocal performance) executes a plan to steal a comet that'll give him superpowers, which fails for him due to the Justice League, but does give Luthor's former experimental guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon) the opportunity to follow up on her previous owner's evil scheme, and she does acquire superpowers.  She has, of course, already acquired Luthor's megalomaniac desire to destroy the superheroes.  In the process, however, she accidentally grants powers to a bunch of other unwanted animals too, principally Ace (Kevin Hart), a streetsmart everydog with a sad backstory, which'll make him a fine foil for Krypto when they inevitably team up in the aftermath of the Justice League getting kidnapped by the guinea pig and Krypto losing his powers to Lulu's kryptonite scam.

In honesty, my biggest objection to this project was a stupid one, which is that DC already has a Legion of Super-Pets (Krypto, Streaky the Super-Cat, Comet the Super-Horse, and Beppo the Super-Monkey, plus Proty II), and that I'd probably have preferred some notional movie about these super-pets in the 1960s that kept it within the parochial world and general attitudinal bounds of the Silver Age Superman Family comics, which is the kind of thing one says aloud if one wants someone to respond, "Are you sure you're not Richard Linklater's age?", and of course that's only if that someone is being extremely polite.  (Somehow it escaped me till the very, very end that "Ace" is founded well-enough in DC comics lore.  In fact, several of these super-pets are.)  My other, less uncool objection was that it looked stupid and kiddie, and both in a very 2022 sort of way.  It is kiddie, and it's not, I'd say, brilliant, but for what it is it works better than I would've ever guessed.  One of the surprises, though maybe it shouldn't be, is how well the vocal cast works together; it's not very surprising that Johnson plays a cocky dipshit with a heart of gold pretty well, nor that McKinnon does good lunatic villainy, and it probably shouldn't be surprising that Johnson and Hart work well together (this is like their third or fourth film as a comedy duo).  But Hart makes me question every presupposition I have about his persona, which I havethrough osmosis, trailers, and, hell, the last time I heard him voice a cartoon petcome to assume relies heavily if not exclusively on irritating, high-pitched squeaking.  This is, like, the opposite of that, perhaps because Ace is necessarily positioned as Krypto's straight-dog, but Hart is even-keeled, and, fuck me, soulful at points.  (League of Super-Pets ultimately winds up giving Ace a Pixar Cry Now Montage that is better at its job than anything Pixar itself has done in a number of years; and as such a thing is, hypothetically at least, a "gimme" with dogs, I'm also modestly impressed with how much heft the attachment issues have as an emotional undercurrent for all three leads, including the villain.)

It is, also and much more importantly, pretty funny, and it's almost never obnoxiously unfunny, which is a "win" as far as current comedy is concerned.  If you think this children's film about dogs has scatological jokes, of course it does, though they can be played with actual sophistication (I'm sure there are several others that are worse, but the one I remember is that Krypto, in a sequence devoted to him explaining how he is a normal dog just like any other dog, uses human lavatories via levitation, flushes, and washes his paws when he's done).  The best material is how much of a mockery it makes out of its IPsthe whole film is such a mockery, of course (the Justice League gets its ass kicked by a bald guinea pig), but League of Super-Pets continues Warners Animation Group and Animal Logic's proud tradition of holding the Batman (Keanu Reeves) in particular contempt.  It finds gratifying new strategies for this, even: for whatever reason, this Batman is very specifically a parody of Michael Keaton's Batman.  This is a film with a lot of unobtrusively nice design, but the bug-eyed Keaton caricature they get up to with Batman is damn near allowed to break the aesthetic.  It's obvious how much fun his over-intense expressions must've been to animate, and Reeves has a blast playing a Batman who's somehow even more openly a pathetic basket-case than Will Arnett's.

It's even reasonably good at superhero action, finding a rewarding balance between "actual stakes" and "bullshit cartoon" (constitutionally favoring the latter, but that seems correct in these circumstances), and it's a fairly solid piece of evidence that mid-budget CGI animation might actually be better for the average silly cartoon than high-budget CGI animation is, just a lot of clean, precise design, lighting, layout, and so forth, taking its cues from the mid-century utopian tidiness of Superman: The Animated Series and resembling, in its frequent resort to graphic, 90 degree-angled dioramas, the LEGO flicks only without the bricks.  (Krypton is only briefly-seen, but looks good, and kind of sets the baseline for what to expect from this as a work of animation qua animation or as an animated adaptation of oft-adapted superhero material: it's a little generic, but pleasingly generic, and, after all, why would it be a good idea to reinvent the wheel on behalf of Krpyto the Super-Dog?)  League of Super-Pets just getting to "good" represents a triumph over very daunting odds, but if you told me it would wind up not just the second-best superhero film of 2022**, but the second-best major animated film of 2022, squeaking past the third, which was the freaking Bob's Burgers movie, I wouldn't have believed you.  Yet here we are!

Score: 7/10

*The Batman isn't in DCEU continuity, of course.  An "else world," if you will.
**Look, fine, I forgot that The Batman existed, and if anything that confirms that League of Super-Pets should be ranked higher.

3 comments:

  1. Apollo 10.5 was one of the bigger disappointments of the year for me because Linklater submerging in nostalgic specificity tends to result in movies I love, but this one was too shapeless even for me. And the animation, while pleasing, made it feel even more disposable. (I still gave it the same rating as you.)

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    1. I don't know if I'm disappointed, precisely (I do like Linklater a great deal, but surely love him less than you do), but if I were going to compare this head-to-head with the off-the-wall stylistics of Waking Life--pretty sure my favorite movie of his, despite/because of how stoner-philosophical it is--it's possible that I could talk myself into being disappointed.

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the Super-pets (if nothing else it might well be the most cheerfully straightforward superhero movie in some years - as opposed to the most grimly straightforward - and it definitely projected just the right amount of “Comics, everybody!” weirdness to boot).

    Also, I’m not going to lie, that Wonder Woman design may be my favourite depiction of the character (Mops forehead).

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