Review: Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

Ever since it became somewhat of a historical item for being the first movie that brought established celebrities to finance their project on Kickstarter, the question surrounding Veronica Mars, the movie based on the television series of the same name that aired between 2004 and 2007, has been if it’s going to be any good. The fans, as is usually the case, were ecstatic with the idea of seeing their favorite teenage P.I. again, and on the big screen to boot. People like me, who really liked the show, but wouldn’t call themselves huge fans, were a little more concerned. I was certainly excited for it, and I found out that I wanted to see these characters again after so many years much more than I thought. But while I had a good time, I’m not even sure what to make of Veronica Mars. I’m not even sure if I can review it as a movie. Or if I can review it at all.

So, let’s stop all these rambling and get right to the chase. Veronica Mars begins with an extended narration sequence designed to get people who might not be familiar with the show up to speed with its premise. If I had to guess, I would say this sequence was mandated by the studio before releasing the film, and is the worst, most unnecessary, but also most revealing part of the film. It is an outright incompetent scene in that it is a very clunky and poorly produced montage that will make fans of the show look at their watches despite just being five or so minutes into the film. But it is revealing because after seeing the whole film, its unnecessary becomes apparent not because viewers that are unfamiliar with the show could easily get up to speed with what is going on while watching the movie, but because I think there is no way someone who has never watched the show could really enjoy the movie.

First of all, because Veronica Mars is not all that interested in crafting an especially good mystery. It isn’t bad, but it’s the kind of case you would get in an episode of the show (a good one, but still just an episode). The true pleasures of watching the movie come from seeing all the familiar faces that populated the Southern California city of Neptune come back. Some of them have outright fantastic introductions, there are a lot of really clever playing with what we know about the characters, the show, and even the actors, and the cast is completely on it and working at the top of their game. Especially Kristen Bell as the title character, and Enrico Colantoni as her P.I. father Keith Mars. They always had fantastic chemistry, and the movie is no exception. Basically, if you ever enjoyed the show, the movie will probably make you happy you spent a couple more hours with these people.

However, and this is a big however, as a movie, Veronica Mars is a mess. The first problem is, like I said, that all the pleasures that will delight longtime fans will fly completely over the heads of people who are unfamiliar with the source material. It’s basically going to be like watching one of the latter Harry Potter movies without having any idea what the story is about. As someone who is very much dislikes the Harry Potter movies, I can only imagine what a nightmare it would be if I didn’t even know what was going on in those overly self-satisfied movies. The same happens with Veronica Mars. I can’t deny that I, for the most part, enjoyed the movie, and it brings up much more complex questions about whether a movie should be able to stand out on its own. My favorite movie of last year, after all, was Before Midnighta third film in a series that draws a lot of its power from its two predecessors. Although I wouldn’t recommend it, I think you could go straight into Before Midnight without watching Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and still have a fantastic experience. I don’t know if the same could happen with Veronica Mars. 

In any case, while the movie’s hermetic view of its fans as its only audience is something that frustrates me, it’s something that I have to let go, since I’ll never be a newcomer approaching the world of Veronica Mars for the first time through the movie. Sadly, though, even without putting that into account, Veronica Mars still has some big problems. Chief among them is the fact that it feels so much like an extended episode of the show (something that was, frankly, expected), and not necessarily one of the best ones. Veronica’s voice over narration felt particularly clunky to me, and the whole first act of the movie feels very much like a long drag until things really get cracking. Once the movie gets going, you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy, but even then there are many plot-lines that come and go and resolve themselves in wholly unsatisfying or throwaway ways (without spoiling much, I’ll say I’m mainly talking about the romantic ones).

I’m not quite sure how to put this into words, but it’s as if you couldn’t approach Veronica Mars as a movie, it simply does not exist on its own. I don’t see where I could enter if I wanted to make an analysis of it. It presents itself as a gift to its fans from the very beginning. As such, it works. I have no doubt fans will walk away satisfied. But it is just two more hours with the characters. Unlike the best episodes and seasons of the show, the Veronica Mars movie won’t stick with you for long after you watch it.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Disney Canon: Chicken Little (2005)

Chicken Little

Now that it’s almost ten years later, the mid-2000s seem more and more like one of the darkest moments for mainstream American animated features, and for Disney in particular. I would argue that the medium had one of its worst moments the following year (2006 didn’t see a single great animated feature released), but for Disney, which thought it couldn’t sink lower than the place it was at twenty years ago, 2005 would show the world how aimless and desperate the studio really was to remain relevant in an animation landscape that had changed around it. It was Walt Disney Feature Animation’s worst moment because it seemed like it was waving a white flag and surrendering to the mediocrity that was going on around it. Say what you will about movies like Treasure Planet, but at least Disney was trying to sway the tide in its favor by being bold. In 2005, it decided that it couldn’t fight anymore; that it was better off doing whatever it was that seemed to be working for its rivals. Thank God that idea didn’t work.

Chicken Little has a pretty dismal reputation. It’s become pretty much universally accepted among Disney fans that it is the worst movie in the Canon. But is it so clearly the worst? If I’m being completely honest, it isn’t much more boring or lacking in interesting plot and characters than, say, Dinosaur. From a “this movie doesn’t work” perspective, I don’t find one to be necessarily more inept than the other. We are, of course, talking about two bad movies, but you get the idea. What I want to say is that Chicken Little, taken in a vacuum, shouldn’t be so easy and obvious to point out as the worst. But that task becomes so easy once you start thinking about the historical background behind it. It is a very bad movie alright, but one that gets dragged down not because it fails, but because of the nature of its failures.

That whole rumbly paragraph is to say that Chicken Little sucks because Disney was trying to do Shrek. In 2001, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Dreamworks Animation had their first gigantic hit thanks to he green ogre. Suddenly, every studio was looking to start a computer animation division that would bring some of those Shrek dollars. Much of the movies produced by these studios were mediocre and have been mostly forgotten. The truth is that nobody cared if some random dudes were doing a crappy movie about a talking moose over at Sony, but everyone (rightly) gasped in horror when Disney, traditionally the giant of animation, tried to do the same. This was even more of a big deal because Disney had just announced it would no longer produce traditionally animated movies, and had closed its animation studios in Florida. Back then, it seemed like we had crossed the point of no return. This really was a surrender. Disney was admitting defeat.

Chicken Little is essentially a retelling of the old tale about the chicken who thought the sky was falling, only this time he is kind of right. What he perceives as the sky falling are actually part of an alien invasion’s technical difficulties. Although it sounds very uninteresting, there is nothing inherently wrong with this premise. I mean, people manage to make movies out of stupid premises all the time. The problem with Chicken Little, as with all bad movies, is in the execution. It is easy how Disney was trying to catch the zeitgeist with Chicken Little. The more charitable way of looking at the movie is to say they were trying to make a movie about talking animals and do with it what Shrek did to fairy tales, and they just failed. I mean, the man in charge of this film was, after all, Mark Dindal, who had brought such fantastic comedic sensibilities to The Emperor’s New Groove. There are a number of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the animals and the world they live in, starting with them having names such as BLABLABLABLAA or BLABLAALA. There are a couple chuckle-worthy moments in the film’s early going resulting of this kind of humor, but the movie’s smarts end there.

The less charitable way, and the one that I can’t help but side with, is that Disney executives (led by Michael Eisner) sat in an office, looked at how Shrek and Ice Age had outperformed their product, and decided to make a checklist of the things that had, apparently, made those movies successful. CGI? Check. Talking Animals? Check. Pop Songs and Pop Culture references? Double check. Because, if there is something that completely sinks Chicken Little is how it seems to be so confident that what people want out of their animated movies is pop songs and pop culture references. In the first half of the movie there are at least three montages set to bland pop songs. Two of these montages even come in a row! Literally, one ends and the other begins. If that wasn’t enough, the movie’s default setting for making us laugh is making the characters sing well known pop songs. Some of the overused gems in the Chicken Little soundtrack include “Everybody Dance Now”, “We Are the Champions” and “Stayin’ Alive”.

There is no going around it, this movie sucks. It feels like a cold, corporate product more than anything Disney ever did. It is hard to think anyone was ever passionate about this project. From the lazy writing to the horrible design of the characters, the low quality of the animation, there is absolutely nothing there to save this movie. I mean, imagine wanting to watch a funny family movie, and getting this:

Next Week: Meet the Robinsons. I have never seen that one, so we’ll see how that goes.

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand-Budapest-Hotel

Director Wes Anderson is, without a doubt, one of the most particular and distinctive auteurs working today. He is also one of the more divisive. This is something that will come up every time a director lends such a specific style to movies. Anderson -who loves to frame his characters in the middle of the frame, looking melancholy to the camera; who puts them in places that look more like giant dollhouses than any real location, where even the most insignificant of occupations has a list of intricate rules- is so precise in the way he makes a movie, that anyone familiar with his work could look at a single frame and tell you if they’re watching a Wes Anderson film. However, Anderson’s attachment to his peculiarities has also given birth to a substantial list of critiques towards him and his craft.

Most complains come from people who think he is much more interested in style than in substance. People who find his movies cold, and distant, and without anything particularly important to say. People that he is interested in telling stories about a sad sack group of white people just to be able to fabricate detailed worlds around them. For a while there, I would have had to agree with some of those people’s quibbles. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a movie I like) and The Darjeeling Limited (a movie I don’t) strike me as particularly affected by these accusations. But sometime in the last five years Anderson seems to have taken a leap, and become fully aware of what he is doing in a way he wasn’t before. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdomhis last two movies, were also his best, not only because they have more dynamic protagonists, but because they perfectly marry his style to the emotional premise of the movie. This period of newly regained strength and creativity has led to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which might just become the quintessential Wes Anderson movie, for it is a film that pretty much argues in favor of the existence of all of the director’s oeuvre.

The movie, fittingly to the director, features a nesting doll structure. We begin with a young woman visiting a statue of the author of a book called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. We then jump to the eighties, where the Author (Tom Wilkinson) tells us about the circumstances that brought him to write the novel. So we jump to the sixties, where a Young Author (Jude Law) visits a run-down Grand Budapest Hotel in the Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, where he meets Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Hotel, who proceeds to tell us the story of how the Grand Budapest came to his possession. This final timeline, taking place in the 1930s and shot in a vertical 3:4 Academy aspect ratio, is the one that takes up most of the movie’s running time. In it, we are introduced to a young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a lobby boy working at the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious destination run by Mr. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).

Gustave is not only the concierge of the Hotel and Zero’s mentor, but also the real protagonist of the movie. He is a man completely dedicated to keeping the grandiose establishment at the top of its game, and to cater to its distinguished visitors. He, in fact, has a particular passion for entertaining (and sleeping with) the wealthy old ladies that stay at the Hotel and come back just for him. However, problems come to Gustave’s life when one of these wealthy ladies, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is victim of a sudden death. Her will leaves Gustave the invaluable painting known as “Boy with Apple”. Madame D’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is furious about this, and so, Gustave ends up becoming a fugitive, desperately trying to keep his life, his hotel, and expose the apparent conspiracy around Madame D’s death.

Gustave is one of the most brilliant of Wes Anderson’s protagonists. Ralph Fiennes gives what I can only describe as a delicious performance. He is completely hilarious as a man who hopelessly tries to keep the composure typical to the elegant world he has grown accustomed to just as his whole life crumbles around him. Not only is there the thread of Dmitri and his henchmen, but of the Zig Zag Division, a police group that is basically the Wes Anderson equivalent of the Nazi SS. Yes, underneath its glossy pink cover, this is actually a movie about World War II and the human inability to stop our most destructive instincts.

Anderson’s argument, presented through Gustave’s odyssey, is in favor of people who try to cling to the past, no matter how remote or inexistent it may be, in order to cope with the horrors of what the future awaits for them. As such, this is the director’s darkest and most tragic movie. Even within his highly fantasized landscapes, a real threat of violence looms in this movie. It’s as if the real world, with all its problems and brutality, interrupted Gustave’s (and Anderson’s) vision of a perfect world. Gustave seems to be, of all of Anderson’s protagonists, the clearest stand-in for the director. One that stands for the value of fantasy, fancy, taste and beauty by trying to keep a magnificent hotel running at full speed no matter what goes on around him.

I said this is Anderson’s darkest movie, but it’s also one of the funniest. Fiennes is, of course, a laugh riot, but you also have a ridiculous number of the director’s usual players in the supporting roles. I already mentioned Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton, but you also have Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. That Anderson so vehemently decided to populate this world with familiar faces works wonderfully in landing the movie’s double message. On the one hand, you have all these people standing for the argument that the director’s movies have value. On the other, you have a level of artifice that makes way to a bigger, more beneficial argument.

There is a scene that consists of a chain of phone calls, which slowly reveals a number of familiar faces for those who like Anderson movies. This scene presents a group of fanciful actors we’ve enjoyed in the past sticking up to to try and stop the horrors of the war to come, but it is also fantasy sticking up to reality and contending for its importance. It is a plea for all of us to keep building our beautiful dollhouses. 

Grade: 9 out of 10 (I’m tempted to go with a 10, but as is usual with Anderson, only future viewings might reveal just how brilliant this movie is)

Disney Canon: Home on the Range (2004)

Home on the Range

 For a while, this was it.

A few years earlier, after a series of frustratingly big financial disappointments, the executives over at Disney had come to the conclusion that hand-drawn animation was simply a thing of the past. If they couldn’t make any money out of these features, no matter how hard they tried, then there simply was no market for this product. We were right at the tick of Pixar’s popularity, sandwiched between Finding Nemo (their biggest hit so far) and the upcoming release of The Incredibles (their best film, in my opinion), when Disney released what was going to be their very last traditionally animated feature-length film.

The biggest problem Home on the Range faced at the time of its release was having to live up to the reputation of being the official swan-song of Disney Animation Studios as we knew them. And if you were alive in 2004, then you’ll know how big of a cultural impact the movie had, which is to say practically none whatsoever. People didn’t want to watch a comedy about a group of sassy cows trying to save their farm (which is ironic considering how people would watch movies starring all kinds of sassy animals as long as they were computer animated), and people who knew the backstory behind the film certainly weren’t convinced the movie was going to be a worthy last act for the studio that had made such beloved classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, The Little Mermaid... I would continue, but I think you are probably familiar with the list.

The truth is that, no, Home on the Range is nowhere near the genius of Disney’s biggest classics. It is not reinventing any kind of wheel like Snow White. Neither is it reviving the studio’s classic style by adopting more modern sensibilities like The Little Mermaid. Actually, it isn’t even trying to fit the mold of Disney’s classic musicals. From the comments I made above, the movie might seem like a typical animated movie from the early 21st century: mainly comedic, starring talking animals. But while it is certainly closer to that kind of movie than to any of Disney’s Princesses, it also is a product of certain directions the studio was taking. The crazy, funny, cartoony movie with a heart is something Disney had been approaching since Aladdinand had by the way of Hercules perfected it, culminating in the funniest of their movies: The Emperor’s New Groove

And even if it is undoubtedly the lesser of those movies, Home on the Range still has much more to offer than a lot of animated movies. Just looking at the year it was released, there is more to admire in it than in the punishingly boring The Polar Express or the ridiculously Academy Award nominated Shark TaleFor starters, Home on the Range wears its heart on its sleeve in a hugely effective way. It knows it is a small, simple story, and as such, it doesn’t try to milk more drama than it should. It earns its few sentimental moments by keeping it small and not too emotional. Most of its interest is in being funny, and as you may know, I prefer when funny comes out of a focused premise the filmmakers are comfortable with, instead of it just being an excuse to make a movie.

That is to say the foundations of Home on the Range are in the right place, which gives it a head start as an effective movie. Now, being serviceable is not the same as being very good, and this movie is, sadly, not that. Its biggest problem is that for as much as it focused on comedy, it is really not that funny. There are certainly a bunch of funny moments, but there is a weird mix where the movie’s tone is mostly on kid level, showing jokes that would make little kids laugh, yet it also has a few weirdly sexual jokes that feel especially out of place in a movie that seemed to be so sincere in its family friendly comedy. 

However, Home on the Range works. And not only that, but I have a lot to appreciate in the way it was made. If this brand of Disney movies was trying to be more like Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, then Home on the Range is the clearer example of that. The stark lines, and two-dimensional design of its characters is nothing but completely inspired by the style of Chuck Jones. Not to mention the fantastically colorful work done in the backgrounds. It is cartoony, and idiosyncratic, and I like it a lot. It might not be entirely successful, but there is something to be said when you have the talent and resources of Disney Animation Studios trying to make something in the style of the classic 50s and 60s Looney Tunes cartoons. If not, then whenever else would we have seen something as crazy and ridiculous as the musical sequence below in a Disney film?

Next Week: The absolute nadir of Disney Animation, an atrocity by the name of Chicken Little.