Thoughts on a Movie I Haven’t Seen

My extreme antipathy towards Rian Johnson left me with no interest in seeing Knives Out, much as I love good mystery stories. I still haven’t seen it, but I have learned the solution from someone who did, and, having confirmed it by a perusal of Wikipedia, I am about to say something about it. Though take it with a grain of salt.

Needless to say, SPOILERS, and spoilers of a mystery, which is worse. However, quite frankly the solution is so stupid that I don’t think it matters.

 

 

 

So, the solution, described by wikipedia, is this:

Unknown to Blanc, after the party, [Christopher Plummer]s nurse, Marta Cabrera, accidentally administered him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual medication and could not find the antidote, leaving Harlan minutes to live. To protect Marta, Harlan gave her instructions to create a false alibi to avoid suspicion over his death; he then slit his own throat. Marta carried out Harlan’s instructions, but Harlan’s elderly mother saw her and mistook her for Ransom.

…After Ransom learned at the party that Harlan was leaving everything to Marta, he swapped the contents of Marta’s medication vials and stole the antidote so she would kill Harlan with an overdose of morphine, making her ineligible to claim the inheritance by the slayer rule. However, Marta actually administered the correct medicine without reading the labels, recognizing it by the weight and viscosity of the fluid, and is therefore innocent of Harlan’s death. After the death was reported as a suicide, Ransom anonymously hired Blanc to discover Marta’s guilt. Fran later saw Ransom stealing Marta’s medical case to hide the fact that the contents of the vials had been switched, and sent him the blackmail note.

So, the trained nurse couldn’t recognize the symptoms of a massive morphine overdose? Neither she nor the old man himself realized that he was wide-awake, perfectly lucid, and mentally alert enough to be able to concoct a complicated plot in the space of a few minutes, despite supposedly getting a lethal overdose of a sedative? In fact, the old man was so convinced that he had mere minutes to live that he cut his own throat some five minutes after getting what he thought was a massive overdose of tranquilizer, enough to kill him within mere minutes?

If he had gotten that level of an overdose, it would have hit him hard straight away and probably left him all-but incapacitated at once, if it didn’t actually put him straight to sleep. He certainly wouldn’t be coming up with elaborate false alibis or cutting his own throat minutes later. It’s a narcotic; you would feel it if you got that much all at once, you wouldn’t be fully functional until the timer runs out like in a video game.

I’ve heard the film compared with the works of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie would have tanned your hide for this. Her solutions were sometimes a little wonky, requiring luck and split-second timing, but they didn’t turn on people simply forgetting how drugs work to the extent that they kill themselves over it. In one of her stories, this would have been the unworkable fake solution disqualified by requiring totally unreasonable behavior on all sides. I can just picture Poirot: “Does a man who has just been given 20 ccs of morphine concoct an elaborate alibi for his nurse and then calmly cut his own throat? Would he even remain conscious long enough to learn that a mistake had been made? And does a trained nurse mistake a wide-awake man who is calmly conversing with her for a man who has just been lethally drugged with a narcotic? No, no! C’est impossible!” 

Why didn’t the grandson just mix the two instead of swapping completely? Blend in an amount of morphine to the medication, and the same result ensues, only without the stupid element of the man coolly and deliberately cutting his own throat because both he and his nurse thinks he’s been given enough morphine to knock out an elephant, and still believe it after five minutes of intense, lucid concentration? Even if they find the mixture, it would be all-but impossible to pin the blame on any one person, and she would still come under suspicion either for incompetence or murder (but you could easily arrange for the mixture to be covered up somehow).

Actually – again, speaking without having seen the film – wouldn’t that make for a better story? She legitimately did kill him, and the detective has to prove it wasn’t her fault?

Or if you wanted this particular set up, just have the medication be something that wouldn’t affect his mind, like the ever-handy digitalin. See, that’s the worst part of this sort of thing; it would be so incredibly easy to avoid this problem with just a little bit of thought. You can have everything the same (though the suicide angle still seems wonky to me), only without the glaring gap in logic. But they didn’t care enough to even do that, apparently.

You know, with so many people praising the film, I thought perhaps that meant that Rian Johnson actually could write a decent story, just couldn’t do Star Wars. But, no; at least as far as the solution goes, this film shows the same level of blind stupidity as The Last Jedi: an inability to think things through or give people logical motivations or reactions. Characters just do what they are told because they’re told to do it because he doesn’t know how to get his desired effects otherwise.

If he doesn’t start to improve, his oeuvre is going to be a treasure trove of “don’t do this” examples for future writers if nothing else.

Call of the CGI Wild

Before seeing Sonic, the only trailer playing was for Call of the Wild, one of the first times I’d even heard that such a film existed.

Honestly, despite the presence of Harrison Ford, I think this looks pretty bad.

The biggest problem is not just that this looks like it only bears the slightest resemblance to the book (which doesn’t lend itself to a live action adaptation in the first place), but more that the dogs appear to be entirely CGI. And not very good CG either. On top of that, but they don’t even act like dogs; they act like cartoon dogs in an otherwise LA environment (and in what is after all supposed to be a rather grim story). That is, they have semi-human expressions and reactions.

Now, there are a couple things to be said. I gave Midway a qualified pass for its equally obvious CGI, but that was for two reasons; one, the film was strong enough apart from it to survive the distracting effects, and two because, ultimately, the cg was just set-dressing. It would have been preferable to use models, but some intensive effects were necessary to create the world.

But here, the CG is being used to create dogs. Real dogs are slightly easier to come by than the Imperial Japanese navy. People are very, very familiar with what dogs look like and how they act. So, when faced with such an obviously fake article, I don’t see how you can react other than to be taken out of the story.

Apparently, the reason for this is partly because they wanted to avoid charges of animal cruelty or endangerment. Okay, but is using obviously fake dogs the only way of doing that? Was it really so impossible to make a movie with dogs without being cruel to the dogs? I mean, most of the book, as I recall, is about dogs pulling sleds, which dogs love to do (from what I hear, when their owners  come to pick dogs for their team, the dogs go absolutely nutsit’s like the mother of all walks to them). There are also some fights, which, okay; cg those if you can’t train the dogs to play-fight. Otherwise, I really don’t see this as a valid reason.

Except that the film has Buck fighting a bear and escaping an avalanche, and other bits of over-the-top action, which obviously they didn’t want to do with real animals (and, again, this apparently made it necessary to have the dogs be CG the whole time, because blending animation and well-trained animals wasn’t an option I guess). So, they first throw a lot of extraneous action scenes, then use that as a reason for making a massively bad choice at the very heart of the film.

The other reason seems to be that people didn’t like the blank, expressionless characters in The Lion King. Except that, again, people are rather more familiar with dogs and their mannerisms than they are with lions or hyenas, not to mention that dogs are generally more appealing and expressive in real life than the aforementioned wild animals. In short, people like dogs, and they like them for being dogs; not for being people in dog suits (I mean, how many films have there been centered around dogs that people watch and enjoy? Just consider Homeward Bound, which was nothing but dogs – and a cat- for most of its runtime). A cartoon is one thing, but a live-action film with semi-cartoon dogs is another.

On top of that, the film seems so different from the book in tone and content (again, the book isn’t really a lighthearted or exciting adventure story but a somewhat grim tale of a pet dog reverting to wild ways under increasing hardships) that I have to wonder what the point was. They probably would have been better off just telling an original story of Harrison Ford and his dog having an adventure. Absent the distracting animation, that sounds like it would be a really enjoyable story. Instead, we have this bizarre and misguided amalgamation of Jack London, Michael Bay, and Industrial Light and Magic’s B-team. How tiresome!

Thoughts on ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

The story behind the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is, in its way, more interesting than the story of the film itself. About a year ago the first trailer dropped, revealing the film’s design for the title character. It should be noted that Sonic is one of the top-draw characters of video-game history. His games are not what they were, but he was one of the big names of the medium’s early heyday, a rival to Mario himself. Everyone of that generation, even though who haven’t played the games, knows Sonic: if Mario is gaming’s Superman, Sonic is its Spider-Man.

So, the trailer dropped, and this was the design they had:

He looks like someone stuffed an emaciated child into a furry onesie and then CGed a piece of bad fan art over his face. It’s as if they weren’t working off of the games so much as off of a cheap live show version of the character.

The backlash was, unsurprisingly, intense. Even the original designer of Sonic said he thought it looked awful.  It was to the point that only a few days later the director, Jeff Fowler, took to Twitter to announce that they were going to re-do the entire design from the ground up, pushing the film back from its original November release date to do all the effects over again.

This was the result:

Ben Schwartz in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Not only is he now about a thousand times cuter and more charming, but it’s also much, much closer to the Sonic that people know and love. You look at the original and you see a strange variation on Sonic. You look at this guy, and you just see Sonic.

But with that taken care of, what about the film itself?

Having just seen it, I can say that I liked it quite a bit. It’s very light, has some extremely glaring gaps in logic, and Sonic’s powers are about as consistent as the average politician’s moral convictions, but it was a very sweet, wholesome kind of film just bursting with goodwill.

One thing that stood out was that the filmmakers very clearly cared about this character. The film is littered with nods and references to the games, from the sound effects to some of Sonic’s mannerisms. The prologue even has him being attack by red echidnas, promising an appearance by Knuckles in a future film (my favorite, being a Nintendo fan, is when Sonic comments on how much he hates mushrooms). More to the point, the filmmakers actually seem to have taken the time to think out what Sonic’s personality is. His essential kindness is established right off the bat, where he saves a turtle crossing the road then, thinking how sad it must be to always have to go slow, takes it on a wild ride to show how exhilarating speed can be. That right there is perfect Sonic; he’s an adrenaline junkie who just loves to go fast, and who, for all his cockiness, genuinely cares about others.

One moment that stood out to me was an early  scene where the extent of his loneliness comes in on him and he expresses his frustration by running as fast as he can. That, it seems to me, is how Sonic would burn off anger; pushing himself to go faster and faster. The bit  leading up to it is very nicely done, playing off of the early gags of Sonic using his speed to pretend he has friends, but suddenly finding that actual human contact – the one thing he really wants – something he can’t give himself, no matter how fast he can run. I also like that the film maintains Sonic’s habit of talking to himself through much of its run time, keeping us aware of his isolation.

Sonic’s presented here as kind of a hyperactive kid; not quite the ‘hedgehog with attitude’ that we know from other sources, but clearly poised to grow into it, and I think it’s certainly an acceptable variation on the character, from what I know of him.

As for the villain, Jim Carey is still not my first choice for Robotnik (I would have gone with Nick Offerman), but again, the film hits his character pretty well and makes him a suitable counterpart to Sonic. Where Sonic is free-spirited and longs to connect with people, Robotnik despises people and prefers his machines, which do as they are told and are never unpredictable or illogical. This fits nicely with the franchise’s motif of live, active animals pitted against cold, crushing technology. Carey is clearly having a blast in the role, hearkening back to his heyday in the 90s (coincidentally, also the time of Sonic’s peak popularity, as I recall), and to be honest, his eccentric, over-the-top arrogance does fit with Robotnik, as I understand him(his boasting and arrogance gives the film plenty of chances to flesh out his character without coming to screeching halt). He’s not nearly fat enough (though the ‘Eggman’ moniker is used in the film, and in a way that makes sense), but he grows into the role, so that like Sonic, by the end of the film he is recognizably the Eggman from the games. And to be honest, seeing these two face off on the big screen after so many years actually did feel like a big deal. The climactic showdown captured the particular tone of their rivalry very well.

The film is structured as an origin story of sorts, showing Sonic growing from basically a runaway living in isolation to the hero we know from the games and other adaptations. He learns his spin-dash, discovers chili dogs, gets his red shoes, and, significantly, learns that he can use his powers for more than just running away. Again, this all feels very appropriate for Sonic. Is it the best possible story they could have told with him? Probably not, but it’s a story that works with his character. The climactic line (heard in the trailers, so it’s not a spoiler) “This is my power, and I am using it to protect my friends,” is a pretty good summation of who Sonic is.

Sonic teams up with James Marsden as a small-town cop who feels unfulfilled with his safe, comfortable small-town life and has tentative ambitions of being a San Francisco cop. He also talks to donuts (“…and eats them if they get out of line”), which I thought was a fun twist on an old cliche. He’s happily married to a very supportive and affectionate wife, and it’s refreshingly charming to see such a patently successful marriage in a family film and not to have any trite ‘relationship crisis’ moments (the only obstacle is her sister, who inexplicably hates him, but whom no one pays attention to. She’s a comedic element that your mileage will probably vary on, but she doesn’t have a lot of screen time). Moreover, their easy-going, familiar relationship, along with the equally easy-going small-town life we see in Green Hills, gives context both to Sonic’s loneliness and Robotnik’s misanthropy. It was vital for this film to have happy connections among its supporting cast to emphasize the plight of its hero. And really, it just warms my heart to have a major Hollywood film championing small town, rural life and happy, mutually supportive marriages over cities, technology, and shrieking misandric single women.

I was impressed by the action scenes, which make full use of Sonic’s speed for some high-adrenaline chases and rapid-fire battles. The climactic chase in particular, with Sonic racing from location to location, dodging Robotnik’s attacks, is exactly the kind of thing you want to see in a movie like this (and for once leaping to famous landmarks actually makes sense, given how the rings work).

I do have to dock points for how inconsistent Sonic’s powers are; his speed basically lets him do anything the script needs at the moment, but not anything it doesn’t need. At one point during a bar fight he runs around the room causing chaos while everyone else is standing completely still. Earlier on, he got shot with a tranq dart because he was caught off guard. Another time he runs from Montana to the Pacific Ocean and back in about ten seconds. When he needs to get to the top of a tall building, why can’t he just run up the side? The climax manages to pull a convenience to allow Robotnik to keep up with him, but it’s still a bit much. Likewise it’s unclear why Sonic gets his heroic second wind in the finale; was it really just the power of friendship (it is magic, after all)? Logic is not this film’s strong suit, so take that for what it’s worth.

Likewise there are a number of plot threads that just kind of fall off at the end. It’s not hard to make surmises about them, but a few throwaway lines or scenes might have helped; like while Robotnik is fighting Sonic, why not have a quick bit of the government trying to reign him in and being ignored to explain why they were so willing to drop the whole thing at the end? Little things like that would have made the film stronger.

As it is, though, I think ‘light, wholesome fun’ sums it up. All I asked of this film was that it be enjoyable and not be morally offensive. That’s a low bar, but so few movies manage to clear it these days. This one soared over it with flying colors (the worst content, as I recall, are a fart joke and a single cut-off swear word). Not great, but worth the time.

The film, and the story behind it, also gives the lie to the idea that fans are impossible to please. When the redesign came out, fans absolutely fell in love with it and the film went from a sure-fire flop to an expected hit. For the most part, I think, fans want to love things associate with the characters and stories they love. Give them just a little understanding, a little good-will, show that you care about the thing they care about, and they will appreciate it. After seeing the writers of Star Wars and the DCEU seemingly going out of their way to belittle and ‘improve on’ the very thing they are supposed to be honoring, basic care and respect come to seem precious.

Between this and Detective Pikachu, I can only hope we are the dawn of a new era for video-game movies, which have had a notoriously bad track record for a long time. But these two films show that they can work, at least when the filmmakers actually care about them. Onward and upwards for Sega and Nintendo!

SonicNoIdea.png

P.S. Definitely stay for the credits. This is one film I really hope gets a sequel.

Mauler Rages against ‘Skywalker’

My favorite YouTube critic presents his eagerly-anticipated rage against The Rise of Skywalker, the final pathetic, dying wheeze of what was once a great franchise. He does not disappoint.

As always with Mauler’s rages, language advisory. Many of his trademark “What the F?”s are in store.

Money Line:

“That’s the point to which Disney has sunk this franchise. They now desperately cling at the chance to be anywhere near as good as the prequels.”

Also:

“They wrote that. They filmed that. They left that in the edit.”
(I’ll leave you to discover what moment inspired that disbelieving comment)

Watch for a supporting cameo by Harry Potter.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the days when it not longer becomes commercially / politically necessary for anyone to pretend that these films are anything but a jaw-dropping disaster and we start getting the tell-all reminiscences from people behind the scenes describing just how the heck this happened. In the meantime, deconstructions like this are the most entertainment you’re likely to get relative to these movies.

Thoughts on ‘Midway’

The other night I got out to see ‘Midway,’ wanting to catch while it was still in theaters. I must say, despite the overuse of CGI and some melodramatic touches, I was very impressed.

The film is of a type that was never very common and is almost non-existent now; a simple and straightforward depiction of historical events. The filmmakers don’t impose any kind of agenda or artificial drama on the story, they just tell what happened more or less the way it did happen and allow that to be enough.

The closest film I can think of would be to Tora, Tora, Tora!, which took basically the same straightforward (and scrupulously fair) approach to the events of Pearl Harbor. A Night to Remember, which took a similar approach to the sinking of the Titanic is another notable example of this particular mini-genre.

Basically, from what I can gather from more historically-literate people, almost everything that happens in this film actually happened. The main characters were all real people. The events and many of the incidents really happened, from aircraft from the Enterprise running smack into the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack to the American bomber trying (unsuccessfully) to ram the Japanese carrier as it goes down in flames.

Even more impressively, the filmmakers allow the characters to speak and act as men and women of their own time and place. There’s no effort to impose a feminist or racially conscious agenda on the events, or to make the characters more ‘modern.’ The Americans have the rough-hewn, devil-may-care, can-do attitude of men who grew up in the Depression. The women are warm and supportive, domestically-focused, but proud of their men. The Japanese have a rigid dignity and class structure bound by intense discipline and sense of honor (though the brutality of the Japanese military is also fairly shown, without any effort to explain the apparent contradiction).

The interesting thing is that, by simply showing these things, the film allows them to be intensely admirable in their own way. When a captured American pilot spits a final defiance in the Japanese face before being executed, it’s a stirring image of American courage. Later, two Japanese officers calmly decide to remain on their ship as its scuttled, after commending the men for their courage and taking responsibility for the defeat on themselves, and it’s a striking and fine instance of distinctly Japanese courage (earlier, Admiral Nagumo, whom we have seen criticized for his very real blunders and whom the film mostly presents as fairly incompetent, has to be convinced to leave his burning flagship under the idea that the remaining men need his leadership. Again, the film makes an effort to be scrupulously fair, not only to the two sides but to individuals on either side).

As for the female characters, there’s a wonderful little vignette where Layton – the codebreaker in charge of determining where the Japanese will strike next, and who tried to warn about Pearl Harbor – comes home late and sets immediately to work at his desk. His wife snatches his glasses to try to make him rest for a while. He pleads for more effort, since he doesn’t want any more men to die because he didn’t work hard enough. She gives him his glasses back and says she’ll make him a sandwich. A sweet, and very human image of domesticity in warfare. Earlier Layton ruefully tells Nimitz that he “plans to spend the rest of his life making it up to her” once the war is over. This matter-of-fact depiction of the different priorities of men and women, where each regards the other with gratitude and affection rather than resentment and hostility, is almost unknown in contemporary fiction. It’s as though the film literally stepped out of the 1940s.

On the subject of raw courage, the film does more than most to show just how insanely dangerous carrier operations of the time were. Again and again we see aircraft malfunction, or crash, or fail to take off or land properly, not due to enemy action but simply because the technology was still in its infancy. Navy fliers, the film makes clear, had to be a little crazy and thoroughly accepting of the possibility of death (one character explains his unflappable courage with an anecdote of how his father survived working on the Empire State Building only to be killed by being hit by a car on his way to church, saying that you simply never know what’s going to get you). We see the futile attacks of the Torpedo Squadrons during the battle, which do absolutely no damage and result in the near-total destruction of both squadrons, but prove unexpectedly crucial by keeping the Japanese pilots busy while the dive bombers set up their runs. And, in what I found to be one of the more striking displays of courage, we see the already-battered bomber squadron, after returning to the Enterprise following their initial run on the Japanese carriers, realizing that they have to get up and go out again to finish the job. Because it’s their job.

We also see the high command, in the form of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who is tasked with finding a way to hold off and defeat the superior Japanese navy until American industry gets up to speed. He, and the codebreakers under Layton, are the ones who have to tell the sailors and pilots where to go, and if they get it wrong then more men will die and, as the film makes abundantly clear, the Japanese will be able to threaten Hawaii and the West Coast. The two halves of the military – the commanders and intelligence and the soldiers and sailors – have to have each other’s back if they’re to get anywhere, and the Battle of Midway is an example of them working in harmony to pull off a spectacular and much-needed victory, ultimately turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

But again, we see both sides. There’s a striking sequence after Pearl Harbor where we cut back and forth between the American brass in Washington and the Japanese command in Tokyo, each discussing what to do next. Admiral Yamamoto is a major figure throughout (showing him listening to FDR’s “Date that will live in infamy” speech was a great touch, as was having him reading Grant’s memoirs). The reasons for the war on either side are presented, but the film shrewdly avoids making an actual judgment on them, focusing more on the events now that the war has begun than on making a historical statement about it.

As I say, my main problem with the film is the overabundance of CGI. While I applaud the film for its minutely accurate depictions of the ships and planes of the time, the whole thing is very, very obviously animated, which takes some of the impact off. They would have been better advised to use a blend of computer and model work (as Emmerich did to great effect in Independence Day) to give a more tactile and solid feel to the film.

There is also a slightly uncomfortable aspect in that the film is largely founded by the Chinese government. Though, as far as I could tell, this didn’t affect the story – which, again, is scrupulously fair and admirable in its depiction of both sides – apart from omitting any mention of Chiang Kai-shek in the scenes set in China, which, as the film covers so much ground, wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.

At times the battle scenes go so far as to feel over the top, almost like a video game. The opening Pearl Harbor sequence, for instance, has a young sailor trying to escape the burning Arizona by climbing across on a rope suspended over flaming waters while Zeros strafe him. Now, for all I know that might have happened, but it feels a little much. Everything being shot from the most dramatic possible angles also lends a sense of unreality and artificiality to the film.

But overall, I was very impressed with the movie, and subsequent consideration has only increased my admiration. Emmerich and his crew have made a true atavism in modern Hollywood; a historical drama that is actually fair and honest about historical events, that presents the men and women of a past age in their own idiom and allows them to speak for themselves rather than being made the mouthpiece for modern platitudes. It is a fitting and honest tribute to the heroism, courage, and skill of the men on both sides who fought one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and that in itself is a fine thing indeed.