Moana Is Great and Frozen Is Terrible

So before I get into the rest of this post I want to include the disclaimer that I am analyzing these two movies purely from a filmmaking standpoint, that is, I’m not getting into gender or race politics because I’m not qualified to speak on such issues. (The second half of this most recent episode of the podcast Still Buffering had some good discussion on gender representation in Moana and Frozen if you’re interested.) With that said:

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I hate how snow and ice are so blue in this movie.

I remember being fairly skeptical of Frozen‘s quality when I finally got around to seeing it a year after release. I think it was mostly because Olaf looked awful, and while he was, it turned out that was only the tip of the iceberg. Frozen reportedly went through some late-stage changes in story, and while that worked out well for Zootopia, it really did not here.

Let’s begin with the beginning. Frozen opens with Anna and Elsa as friends, playing with Elsa’s ice powers. Then Elsa accidentally hurts Anna and the sisters’ parents have trolls make Anna forget about the ice powers and tell Elsa to hide them, and then the parents die at sea and there’s a song showing Anna and Elsa growing up and not being friends anymore and then there’s going to be a big party and Anna sings about how the castle is finally going to be lively again.

That all happens in about 15 minutes, by the way. The extreme speed of all this plot information and changes in status quo make it impossible to care about any of it; sure, for Anna it’s been years since the castle was exciting and fun, but for the audience it’s been about five minutes.

This flip-flopping in status quo also drives the problem with Elsa as a character. Elsa basically has two characters in the movie: shy and afraid of her powers, and overly bold and confident. The result is a character with a totally unclear personality; is the confident Elsa just a blip and the shy Elsa we see for most of the movie “really” her, or is her confident side her “real” personality that’s otherwise been hidden? Because her character arc is kind of deemphasized at the end of the movie (at least to my recollection; it’s been a while since I saw the movie) there’s not really enough information to determine that.

Speaking of the end of the movie, that’s it’s other main problem. At this point in the plot Anna has been put under a magical curse that will freeze her unless broken by an “act of true love.” The resolution to this is when Anna steps in front of the villain Hans’ blade to save Elsa; Anna’s self-sacrifice is the act of true love. The problem with this is that Anna’s love for Elsa is something that’s never been in question during the movie. Half of the plot, in fact, is driven by how much Anna cares for Elsa. So for Anna saving Elsa to be the climax just doesn’t mean much because it says nothing new about the characters and requires no personal growth or change.

Hans, meanwhile, is a terrible villain. It’s really easy for characters who are pretending to be good but are secretly evil to come off as cheap because the writers can just write the character as if they were good until the reveal comes. And that’s exactly what happens here: there are no hints that Hans is evil, no indication that he’s putting on an act. He’s just a good guy who suddenly becomes a bad guy.

And it’s a shame that he turns out to be a bad guy, really, because of how it makes the song “Love is an Open Door” totally meaningless. I actually really like the song (it’s the only one in the movie I enjoy listening to), but not only is it lampshaded almost immediately when Elsa points out how ridiculous it is to get engaged to a dude after five minutes, but it turns out that the love was 100% fake on Hans’ part anyway so in retrospect, “Love is an Open Door” is basically just filler and its cuteness is totally undermined by the deception involved.

The final point against Frozen is its songs. Most of them are either emotionally hollow (“Love is an Open Door,” “For the First Time in Forever”) or more-or-less filler (Olaf’s song, the trolls’ song, the opening song which is sort of thematically relevant but is literally just about ice miners, whose lifestyle is totally irrelevant to the movie). “Let It Go” is the only song in the movie that has any real significance to it, and while its popularity is undeniable I don’t think it’s a very good song.

In addition to the actual quality and relevance of the songs, they also fall into a problem I have with a lot of Disney musicals, where the songs are majorly frontloaded. After “Let It Go” closes the first act, three of the four songs left in the movie are pointless filler and there aren’t any at all in the third act. (Also, while I don’t have the patience to start up the movie and check the timestamps, I’m pretty sure there’s only one song past the halfway point of the movie.) The end result is that the movie feels less like a musical and more like a movie that has some songs in it.

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Not sure why the pig even exists since it’s just there for like ten minutes.

And that brings us to Moana and the first point in its favor, which is that it has not one but two climactic songs, both of which are great. (I haven’t thought a lot about what my favorite Disney song is but “I Am Moana” is definitely up there.) And there really aren’t any filler songs, either–the closest one to being filler is “Shiny,” but the way it’s used as a focal point for the setpiece going on during the song makes it feel more important.

Beyond that, Moana just fundamentally works. The characters have clear personalities and their arcs make sense; the light plot twist feels natural; the climax is founded on Moana’s unique skills, not a test of something that was never in question; and while the pacing in the first act is a little jumpy, the prologue isn’t at all convoluted. I haven’t seen Big Hero 6, but that aside I feel quite confident in calling Moana Disney’s best 3D animated movie this decade. (Zootopia is pretty close, though.)

Ugh, this is why writing about stuff I like sucks. I got nine paragraphs out of Frozen but only two out of Moana. Anyway, Moana is awesome and Frozen is not, case closed.

Carol, Tennessee Williams, and The Birdcage

Okay, bear with me, I promise this makes sense.

I finally got around to seeing Carol (2015) last night, and yeah, it is that good. And while watching it, I noticed connections to the works of playwright Tennessee Williams, connections I also noticed when rewatching The Birdcage the night before. So I thought I’d do a post about all of them!

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This movie has some very pretty posters.

The first character followed in Carol is a man. We watch him recognize someone in the restaurant he’s in, who’s dining with another woman, and he goes over and says hello and invites her to a party. It’s clear from the way the two women look at each other (and a lingering hand on a shoulder) that there’s something important going on here, but we’ve not yet been clued in to what, exactly, it is–we have as much information as the man.

The movie then goes back in time to tell the story of the two women before revisiting this scene toward the end of the movie, but it now opens following the titular Carol, and we now understand the relationship between her and the other woman, Therese. We see this time how meaningful the conversation between them is before it’s so carelessly interrupted by what we’ve learned to be a totally inconsequential character. The movie has shifted us from this male perspective, ignorant of the inner lives of these women, to their perspective, showing us how much is going on under the surface of 1950s repression.

Repression is really a key theme of the movie. For Therese to go on a weeks-long vacation with a woman she just met might seem bizarre in other contexts, but it makes perfect sense when you consider how this is the first time she’s experiencing real attraction, not just going along with what others expect from her. Carol has opened Therese up to a whole new world, one that’s more fulfilling and exciting than what she’s previously experienced.

It’s not as simple as just going away with Carol, however. Both Therese and Carol have men in their lives, who represent not just literally but also I think figuratively the way that society traps women, forces them to relate to men even when they have no desire to. Therese and Carol both have to extricate themselves from their preexisting relationships to be with each other in a way that other couples never would.

And that’s where the relation to Tennessee Williams comes in. I’ve been reading some of his plays lately, and being trapped by social situations (albeit usually familial rather than societal) is a big theme of his work, at least the one’s I’ve gotten to.

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Minimalism!

This is best summed up in an early scene in The Glass Menagerie, when the protagonist Tom tells his sister about a magic show he saw where the magician trapped himself in a coffin and escaped “without removing one nail.” He then says:

“There is a trick that would come in handy for me–get me out of this two-by-four situation!”

It’s this impossibility of escaping his mother and sister without removing metaphorical nails that prevents Tom from leaving as he’d like, and it’s what keeps Carol and Therese from each other, too. These situations that they’ve been trapped in, by society or by family, prevent them from living their lives on their own terms.

While Tom, Carol, and Therese all eventually do escape their coffins, mess and all, we see another side of this issue in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In it, the more-or-less protagonist Brick is very clearly gay, but seems unwilling to admit it even to himself. He’s trapped by his wife, by his family, and the conflict of it all has led him to a state of alcoholic depression. In the end, he’s not willing to disturb the nails, and is seen prepared to conceive a child with his wife. We see how it’s so much simpler, not to mention easier, to just go with the flow, to let others’ expectations for you run your life. Brick just isn’t capable of breaking free.

Through this lens, The Birdcage has a lot in common with a Tennessee Williams play. The vivid dialogue, the exaggerated characters, the themes of family conflict and repression, all would fit in pretty nicely among Williams’ works.

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This movie’s poster is surprisingly understated.

The Birdcage sees repression from the other side, though: its gay characters are flamboyant and totally out, but through the course of the movie’s events find themselves playing straight to get along with their future in-laws. They put themselves back in the coffin, and while the movie is too much of a comedy to really get into the thematic material behind this, the fact that things go so wrong is evidence of how hiding one’s self and playing by society’s rules just doesn’t work. Albert and Armand are gay; no amount of drag or fancy suits can change that.

It’s notable to the progress made over the course of the 20th century, though, that Albert and Armand are even able to be out as they are. They’re afforded more room by society to refuse to conform, living in 1996 and not the ’40s or ’50s. Carol and Therese barely even have language to describe who they are; the movie’s characters only ever speak of being “that way” or other vague euphemisms. The Birdcage is, in a way, a sequel to Carol and Therese’s story, showing how their lives could have been just 40 years later.

Something unrelated I noticed on the rewatch of The Birdcage is how much of a dick Armand’s son is. You’d think that having grown up with a gay dad would teach him a thing or two about homophobia and how much damage it can do, but he’s perfectly content to ask his dad to go back into the closet with basically no sympathy. Pretty selfish, dude!

I don’t have a good closing for this post, so instead I’d like to point to a great post about Carol written by one of my favorite authors, Malinda Lo. You can find it here!

EmotedLlama’s 2016 in Movies

For simplicity’s sake (and for the sake of not having to try to remember everything I’ve watched this year) I’m going to limit this list to movies that came out this year, which means only stuff I saw in theaters plus Zootopia. And since that only totals six movies, I’m going to go chronologically rather than ranking them.

Captain America: Civil War

I’m pretty much down for everything Marvel is doing in the movie department right now (except for Doctor Strange, fuck that) and this wasn’t a disappointment. The MCU movies have hit a good midpoint between highbrow and lowbrow, and it’s really just cool to see a shared universe in a movie franchise. Civil War wasn’t anything overly special in and of itself, but it was super enjoyable and was impressive in its handling of a crapton of characters.

Zootopia

This released before Civil War but I saw it on DVD so I think this is where it fits on the list. Anyway, Zootopia is a fine movie that does a really good job at exploring prejudice and internalized biases, but the actual plot was underwhelming to me–it’s just a standard police mystery, but waaay simplified. I’m sure that’s fine for kids, but it doesn’t really hold up from an older perspective that’s used to more complex plots in plot-driven stories. Adventure or character-driven stories work better for all-ages movies, IMO.

Finding Dory

I rewatched Finding Nemo before seeing Finding Dory and I was surprised by how good the former is coming at it as an adult. The thematic material exploring cautiousness and father-son relationships was really well-handled and practically everything that happened in the movie supported its themes.

Finding Dory, on the other hand, kind of just takes a “if you repeat a word enough it’s your theme” approach that I found really disappointing, and the plot is pretty much just willy-nilly (or at least that’s how it seemed from a first viewing). Also, Dory doesn’t scream nearly enough.

Star Trek Beyond

I stopped watching Star Trek Into Darkness about 20 minutes in because it sucked. This movie did not suck! In fact I really enjoyed it; the plot was engaging, the characters were enjoyable, the visuals were great, the action was exciting. A great summer blockbuster and probably the best we can hope for from a modern Star Trek movie.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Oh man, this movie. Totally blows Finding Nemo out of the water as far as sophisticated thematic material goes, although I’m not sure it’s quite as successful in its execution. Kubo and the Two Strings is a gorgeous, enrapturing movie that hits on some really good pathos, but it stumbles a bit with the actual plot, which felt sort of incidental, like a first draft that never got tightened up. Still, I would readily recommend this movie with no real reservations; it’s really incredible. I might have more to say about it when I get around to rewatching it, as it’s a very dense movie.

Rogue One

Ugh. There’s nothing technically wrong with this movie; the plot can be followed, the character motivations can be understood (for the most part; I think Jyn’s arc is too sparsely-communicated), the effects are phenomenal, it doesn’t really drag. There’s nothing actively bad in this movie, and yet it forgets to actually do something to make you care:

The characters are bereft of even cliche, one-note personalities, and don’t really have anything in the way of arcs or progression. The plot is far simpler than it needs to be given how much screentime it takes up and how ultimately pointless it is (given that this is a prequel and we know the results). The personal connection the movie tries to build, of the protagonist and her father, is never explored or given its due. The villain is totally unthreatening and basically just a huge screwup. And frankly, there aren’t enough action sequences and the ones that are there are far too basic.

La La Land

A late entry delaying this post because I was too lazy to write about it!

On the surface I really liked La La Land. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone put in great performances (and Ryan Gosling is very dreamy), the songs are great, the ending hits the right notes of bittersweetness. There’s also a stylistic touch I really liked where the movie starts out a lot more heightened-reality, surface-level sort of thing as it goes through the budding stages of the central relationship, and then as things start to fall apart the scenes get longer and the musical segments fade away and it becomes a much more traditional movie to match the fading magic from Mia and Sebastian’s romance.

Unfortunately, I also think the movie has a lot of wasted potential and missed opportunities. The whole shtick is that it’s a sendup to classic Hollywood, but La La Land fails to ever really have anything to say about classic Hollywood, and it does nothing to update the genre beyond setting it in modern day. “A movie in the style of classic Hollywood but made in 2016” is okay as a premise, but it’s disappointing that there’s really nothing new or thought-provoking here.

The closest the movie ever really comes to meaningful commentary is when John Legend’s character remarks on how his poppy, modern jazz is, despite Sebastian’s clear lack of interest in it, a valid take on the genre, as the whole point of jazz was to be new and exciting and daring. But there’s never any payoff to this; Sebastian doesn’t really argue, but his opinion clearly doesn’t change and he gets his jazz nightclub in the end, so I’m left wondering what is being communicated by this. It kind of feels like nothing much at all, like the movie was just showing a defense of progress and change without really engaging with it.

Meanwhile, the movie’s biggest theme, as best I can tell, is of dreams and the pursuit of them. This is fine, but I think it’s wealemed by the fact that the movie never really goes into the reality of going after one’s dreams and doesn’t show its characters attaining them. The actual plot of the movie is just the relationship between Mia and Sebastian, leaving the themes less explored than I would have liked.

Also, as much as I loved the songs, two (maybe three, arguably) of the five didn’t have much connection or relevance to the plot or themes of the movie, which I thought was disappointing.

While I didn’t end up loving this movie as much as I hoped, because ultimately there isn’t enough going on underneath the surface, I do need to stress that the surface is really lovely. The primary-color costuming, the fantastic cinematography, the music, the set design; La La Land is delightful to watch and I enjoyed it a ton.

A Success in Browsing Netflix: Eat With Me

So the problem I have with browsing Netflix for stuff to watch is that I follow TV and movie news pretty closely, which means most things I see in Netflix fall into one of two categories:

  1. Something I’ve already heard of and know I’m not interested in.
  2. Something I’ve never heard of because no one has heard of it, making me wary of taking the ~30 minutes it’d take to figure if I like it or not. (Or I could go look up a trailer but that’s effort.)

Because of this, I rarely bother watching anything on Netflix I’ve not heard of elsewhere. But last night I was bored and I had a good feeling about this movie; I’m not sure exactly why, but it certainly helped that it was one of the few movies in the LGBT section without a shirtless dude on it. That never screams “interesting plot and meaningful character work” to me.

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This poster massively overstates the presence of George Takei in the movie.

Eat With Me is a movie about Emma, a middle-aged woman who’s been semi-estranged from her adult son, Elliot, after he came out as gay. When she leaves her husband, however, she ends up living with Elliot and plot ensues. (Emma and Elliot are both treated as protagonists by the movie, but it begins and ends on Emma so I give her precedence.)

The most interesting thing to me about Eat With Me is its soundtrack, which is all French-style music (think accordions, jaunty strings, some straight-up French vocals, etc.). Which isn’t a knock on the movie–it’s really nice and I totally recommend it–it’s just that Eat With Me is a pretty low-key film so this stands out. While I can’t speak for the intentions behind this choice, it feels very intentional: food is a big element in this movie, and France is known for its cuisine.

What’s interesting rather than just appropriate about this is that the movie is mostly about Chinese cuisine, which especially in comparison to French cuisine is seen as cheap, fast, or as one character in the movie says, “greasy.” And from what I’ve read, that Chinese cuisine is seen this way is unfair to its merits and capabilities. So to score scenes about cooking Chinese food to French music seems very deliberate to me, as if to say, “hey, Chinese food deserves respect, too!” It’s really cool to me that a movie can communicate that just with its soundtrack.

I don’t really have anything else to say about Eat With Me; it’s just a really solid film that I’m glad I gave a shot.