In Defense of Pocahontas

When I was a kid, I thought Pocahontas was an okay movie. It was never my favorite, but I liked the villains and Flit and Meeko. Later on, I went through a cynical period that included an irritation toward the film. “It’s getting history wrong” and “Ooh let’s solve everything with magic yeah sure”. I’m sure we all go through that. Some of us never outgrow it.

Now that I think of myself as a generally balanced and thoroughly positive skeptic, I recently watched Pocahontas again. I’ll admit a part of me remembered my sour feelings but I soon fell in love with the film. I found it to be one of the most mature of Disney’s Animated Classics, and one of its smartest.

The whole “It’s not historically accurate” argument went first. Of course it’s not accurate. It’s fiction. Nobody looks at Inglourious Basterds and complains about it being “historically inaccurate” because it’s just a movie. Pocahontas is also a movie with talking trees and magic hearing abilities, and I’m pretty sure those didn’t exist either. Speaking of the Listen with Your Heart aspect, while I will say it’s probably the weakest part of the film, I get it. From a storytelling perspective, they needed a way to allow these characters to communicate, and since we already had talking trees, it just seems believable enough that we have a magic like that too. It also plays into the themes of the film, how actually listening to each other is better than just acting out of fear and confusion.

Pocahontas tends to be lumped in with movies like Avatar and FernGully and Dances with Wolves for comparison purposes. What is so smart and what puts Pocahontas far above any of those films, in my opinion, is its execution of the concept. It’s not just about a guy learning that maybe his people’s way of thinking is wrong. It’s about BOTH sides realizing they’re wrong. There is no true villain in the film other than hate and fear (and pride, but I’ll get to that when I talk about Ratcliffe in a second). I’ve heard complaints about the lyrics and attitude of the song Savages, but those lyrics are extremely important to these themes. The only complaint I would have is that it’s pretty much the same as The Mob Song in Beauty and the Beast in both mood and purpose. But Savages also leads to an epic reprise that brings the film to its conclusion.

But before I’m done, I want to talk about Ratcliffe. It’s been argued that he is one of the worst or weakest Disney villains, and I fully disagree with the sentiment behind that. Literally, he is possibly the weakest, or at least gives Scar a run for his money. But as a character, I think he’s fascinating. He’s a disgruntled politician who has spent his entire life trying to earn the respect of those above him, only to end up in a worse spot because of it. He knows this is his very last shot at fame and glory, and no matter what it takes, even if it means he has to kill every last Indian, he’s going to do it for the sake of his own name. Every action he takes is out of fear of failing. He doesn’t really care about the gold, but the accolades he’ll get back home for finding it. Honestly, I think he’s one of the most human, most developed Disney villains, especially compared to what Disney was doing at the time (and that is in no way a slight against any of the other great 90s villains).

I also quickly want to say that the voice acting is incredible all around, even from Mel Gibson who I normally don’t particularly care for (I would argue this film and performance is far more powerful than the other 1995 Mel Gibson blockbuster, Braveheart). The animation is gorgeous, fully expressing who Pocahontas is and the world she’s living in. The score might very well be my favorite of any Disney film, and the songs are top notch. I think my only true disappointment with the film is that the Blu-ray doesn’t have the “extended” cut with If I Never Knew You restored, as the DVD did (and if I’m wrong and that cut is on the disc somewhere, please let me know).

Review – My Little Pony: A Very Pony Place (2006)

In a desperately needed change of pace for the franchise, A Very Pony Place is an anthology film rather than one long story. While the stand-alone shorts from this era of My Little Pony aren’t able to hold much ground, these three are all modeled and balanced to near-perfection. They stand out as a highlight for a period that is usually seen with disdain.

The first short, Come Back, Lily Lightly, introduces us to the titular character (Erin Mathews), a unicorn whose horn glows when she’s happy. Her ability is unusual and leads her too embarrassment, so her friends try to explain to her that being different is what makes her special. This is the weakest technically but the with the strongest story of the shorts. They cut some corners on the animation, even repeating a good five seconds of audio and video at one point. It also runs a bit long compared to the other two. But the message is solid and delivered happily through song. I was genuinely surprised at how great all of the songs in this video were, after the subpar efforts from most of the G3 movies. The ending is absolutely adorable and was the biggest moment for me while watching this film.

The second short, Two for the Sky, brings us another new pony named Storybelle (Kelly Metzger). She tells the story of Starflight and Heart Bright (both Anna Cummer), two inseparable ponies who dream of flying with wings. I’m not sure what them being so alike has to do with the story. Storybelle really emphasizes on this point and other than having a shared dream at one point, it doesn’t really seem necessary. Still, it’s a cute story about learning to love yourself the way you are. Of the three, it’s the least memorable.

Finally, the third short, Positively Pink, is what ties them all together, in a way. Both of the first two stories were being experienced by Pinkie Pie (Janyse Jaud) and Minty (Tabitha St. Germain), the two flagship ponies of the era. The third story finds Minty learning that it’s Pinkie Pie’s birthday. She decides to gather the whole village to make her a surprise party while Puzzlemint (Kathleen Barr) takes her out of town for the day. This might sound vaguely familiar to some bronies out there. There’s not much else to the story, but it’s a silly, fun little short that delivers on entertainment. Of everything in its predecessor, this short has the most in common with the style of Friendship Is Magic.

All three shorts are engaging, enlightening and enthralling. If you were to ever show your child anything from the third generation of adaptation of the My Little Pony franchise, this would be the most rewarding. And if you are curious yourself, I’d say it’s definitely worth checking out too. It’s just unfortunate that it’s the only G3 pony movie not currently available on Netflix.

Review – My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas (2005)

I’m a sucker for sweetness, but I’m also a slave to substance, so children’s videos like these are a dangerous minefield of disappointment. Luckily for me, My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas has at a good portion of the fun and the heart you expect from a Christmas special. While it may not be the most memorable or emotional, it at least tries to be on that level.

Christmas time is just around the corner and the ponies are all excited for Santa to visit. While trying to make sure everything is perfect, Minty (Tabitha St. Germain) accidentally breaks the Here Comes Christmas Candy Cane, without which Santa will be unable to find Ponyville. Now she has to set things right so her friends can have a merry Christmas.

At first I wasn’t sure what to think of Minty. When she’s introduced, she’s won’t shut up, and it was starting to get on my nerves. But as the story went on I grew to find her charming and even adorable. She’s scatterbrained and a little clumsy, but she’s not stupid and she knows when to take things seriously. For example, when she realizes she needs to do something to make up for her mistake, the first idea she has is to give away her most valuable possessions as presents to her friends. I admire that kind of generosity and selflessness in a protagonist, not to mention a role model for kids.

This movie stands out compared to most other G3 videos by actually having a complete story with conflict and even a little bit of peril. I genuinely wanted to see Minty save Christmas, and there’s a couple curve balls thrown in to make you question if she’ll be able to do so. It’s disappointing that such basic concepts of storytelling are so hard to come by in these straight-to-video releases. Just having those puts this above some of Disney’s worst sequels.

If you have a child, especially one who is into the G4 (the current) My Little Pony series, this would be a great special to bring out next Christmas. I don’t know if kids find the drastic difference in art style and characters confusing, but they’ll probably find it enjoyable regardless. It’s simple, innocent fun that keeps you engaged and entertained.

Review – My Little Pony: Twinkle Wish Adventure (2009)

There was a time when My Little Pony was known as mindless entertainment for toddlers. I don’t think that was ever necessarily true, but Twinkle Wish Adventure does not help my case. While it’s not the most mind-numbing of the franchise, or even the era, there’s nothing here to challenge kids or to better them in the end.

It’s the eve of the Winter Wishes Festival and all the ponies are excited to have their wishes granted by Twinkle Wish the wishing star. But in a moment of foolishness, Scootaloo (Tabitha St. Germain) wakes the star too early, and loses it. The rest of the ponies, Pinkie Pie (Janyse Jaud), Rainbow Dash (Anna Cummer), Cheerilee (Kelly Sheridan) and Toola Roola (Erin Mathews) take off in search of their missing star.

If you’re excited about how epically that amazing story might unfold, note my sarcasm. At a mere forty-five minutes in length, it crawls along at a very slow pace. Presumably this is to guarantee the young children watching will be able to follow the story, but it’s such a simple story to begin with that I can’t imagine it was necessary. This problem existed in a lot of children’s entertainment at the time and I’m glad the trend is slowly dying out. Luckily the humor and the voice acting are able to keep the dull pace from being strictly dull. There are a few decent gags along the way, though nothing memorable or noteworthy.

This era of My Little Pony gets a lot of flak for its saccharine sentimentality and character design, but I’ve always felt that wasn’t entirely fair to the work. The ponies in what is known as G3.5 have very bizarre proportions, with Popeye Syndrome in their hooves and comedically large heads. However, the animation is decent, especially considering a lot of other straight-to-video animated films, including Disney’s. The colors are vibrant and every character is pronounced and unique. You never have to stop and remember which pony was which, a problem of the first generation of My Little Pony. Their movements are fluid and I didn’t notice any reused animation, at least from within itself. At any rate, it’s many levels above the embarrassing “G3.6″ that came about around the same time.

Twinkle Wish Adventure is harmless to a fault. The obstacles are vague and easily conquered. There’s a subplot about Cheerilee being seemingly forgotten by her friends, which could have led to a much bigger theme, but instead was resolved within minutes and quickly forgotten. I don’t like what this movie represents, but I don’t see it as all that harmful either, so I’m not sure I can complain. It’s funny to think though that the entire dynamic and history of the My Little Pony franchise would change completely only a year later.

Review – American Sniper (2014)

The last film I saw in Cinemark’s Oscar Movie Week was American Sniper, and it figures that it would be the hardest for me to place. On one hand, it’s a gripping drama with impeccable acting and emotion. On the other hand, it has strangely over-the-top storytelling and stays light on character structure.

American Sniper is about the, some might say famous, some might say infamous, U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). He was most well known as “The Deadliest Sniper in America” before he was tragically killed in 2013. We follow his life and legacy as he fought determined to keep his home country safe.

Cooper’s performance is subtle, capturing the heartache and stress Kyle had to deal with every day for what he put himself through. But that subtlety only goes so far, and at times I couldn’t quite tell if he was being stoic or just bored. I can’t speak for the real Kyle, but this film makes him seem to have had a pretty dull personality, both before and after his tours.

The rest of the performances are about as standard as you can get. The only person close to being considered a stand out might be Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya. She plays the struggling, worrying wife well enough, though it’s understandable that she had little award buzz. She’s a significant part of the story but she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than worry and talk into the phone.

The story is where it starts to lose me. I understand, of course, that it was based on this guy’s real life accomplishments, but it plays out like an 80’s cop thriller. Kyle is the officer set on finding that one crook who pushed him too far. His wife is the chief telling him he’s in over his head and that it’s not worth it, but he goes out searching anyway. It’s very strange for a war film to have this type of objective-centered storytelling.

I found myself comparing American Sniper to a lot of other movies, and American Sniper came up inferior in every situation. It reminds me most of Hurt Locker, which is far and away more gripping, more emotional and more epic in its portrayal of the gritty reality of war. It reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty, which was able to have a similar objective without ever even bringing the villain in as part of the narrative or having it main character do any physical fighting. It reminds me of The Deer Hunter, which did a much better job at portraying and letting you get into the head of a person suffering from PTSD.

Maybe I expected more from this film than it ever intended to give, or maybe it promised more than I felt it gave in the end. Either way, American Sniper just didn’t do anything for me. It’s a decent watch, so I suppose I recommend it if you already wanted to see it.

Review – Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash is a powerful, exciting ride of tense emotion. Its astounding performances and courage make it an absolute masterpiece.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a drummer in his first year at Schaffer, as he finds himself recruited by the school’s top conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). He soon realizes that Fletcher’s teaching methods are not only unusual, but downright dangerous. Admiring the man nonetheless, Andrew continues his struggle to be “one of the greats”.

All the buzz this year was on Simmons, and it’s no wonder. He’s always been amazing at yelling his head off, but this time he went into full gear. Fletcher has instantly become one of my favorite movie villains. He’s cunning, manipulative bully who will do whatever it takes to be known as the man who discovered the best of the best. But what makes the character truly fascinating is that under everything, you can see that he truly does care about the students he chooses for his band. He wants the glory, but he also wants to appreciate their success.

Meanwhile, I was even more shocked by the outstanding performance from Teller. His determination is authentic and ardent, and his playing is captivating. I had a hard time telling how much of his performance was sheer suffering for the sake of art as opposed to simple “movie magic”, and I think that’s what makes a movie brilliant.

This is only the second effort from writer/director Damien Chazelle, and it’s breathtaking. For a newcomer he excels in his storytelling, delivering a fast, vibrant and completely unpredictable series of events. There are so many twists and turns that it keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. I cannot possibly recommend this film enough. It’s one of my favorite films of 2014, and easily my personal pick for Best Picture out of the eight nominated.

Review – The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game tells the somewhat obscure story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the man who essentially invented the modern day computer while helping the British military attempt to decode German messages during World War II. His story is astounding and ultimately tragic, and the film does a great job in honoring his memory.

I suppose one could say this is the most “standard” of this year’s Best Picture nominees, as its story plays out in a very familiar way. But just like all great films, what makes it work are the characters and the way they interact with each other and with their setting. Turing was, by all accounts, a very strange man, possibly suffering from Asperger Syndrome, and it didn’t help that he was also gay. In the conservative, wartime atmosphere of Great Britain in the 1930s, these liabilities make for an intense ride. It takes talent to make an audience fear the unknown while watching a film based on actual events. The Imitation Game is gripping, to say the least.

Cumberbatch has needed a role like this for some time now, and he really gave it his all once he had it. His portrayal has so many different layers of every imaginable emotion within every breath. You just want to keep watching and studying his mind as he attempts to interact with his associates. Keira Knightley gives an expectedly elegant performance as Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke. Their chemistry is unique in that despite being engaged for most of the story, neither of them are ever necessarily portrayed as romantically involved. Rather, they have a mature respect and admiration for one another. It’s a friendship of a level and dynamic typically unseen in film.

The rest of the cast keeps up well with its leads, and are able to keep from being overshadowed. The stand-out for me was Alex Lawther as a young Turing in flashbacks. I was impressed by his ability to so accurately play a tiny Cumberbatch, whose acting style is about as unique as it gets.

Review – Boyhood (2014)

My favorite line in Boyhood is, “I’d rather have my balls clawed off than sit through that again,” because that’s exactly how I felt when they said it. Back when it was released during the summer, I heard people compare it to The Tree of Life, and that absolutely terrified me. It’s nowhere near as insufferable as Terrence Malick’s “masterpiece”, but it’s as close as a movie has come since.

Boyhood was the pet project of director Richard Linklater for the past twelve years. Once a year, he gathered his cast and crew to film a portion of a movie about the life of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), growing up with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mom (Patricia Arquette), while seeing his dad (Ethan Hawke) whenever the court says it’s okay. And that’s it. That’s the whole movie. It just follows these kids as they literally grew up in real life, albeit via a screenplay.

I understand and respect how risky this project was. I understand that you don’t really know when you hire a five year old that when he’s sixteen he’s not going to be a very good actor. I respect the dedication that went into making this movie become a reality. What I don’t understand or respect is why they made such an unbearable tugboat of a movie. And trust me, I’m straining to even call this a “movie”. I will say that it is most certainly an experience, but one that no one should have to endure.

I will say at least that Arquette gives a terrific performance as a mother who didn’t get the life she was hoping for. She’s really the only one worth commending in this whole mess though. Ethan Hawke, an actor I have admired for a while now, looks as if he’s just happy to be picking up a paycheck once a year. And then there’s Linklater’s daughter, who really just should not have been in this film. I’m sorry, because I feel like I may sound harsh to a girl who was most likely just doing what her father told her to do, but her acting made a lot of really hard-to-sit-through scenes all that much harder to sit through.

If you’re thinking I forgot the main character, I didn’t. Coltrane does what he can with the role, but whatever acting future he might have is shadowed by the fact that I absolutely despised the character he was playing. I cannot enjoy a movie when I hate the main character as much as I did Mason. He’s an unlikable little jerk whose life I have no interest in following. Maybe that was intentional though. I knew kids like him when I was in school. Hell, for a short while I was like him. But why would I want to watch that, and with no other purpose than to watch it? You can’t just have a character like that and not do anything with it. He faces no real conflict because there is no plot.

I feel like any complaint I could have about the story can be boiled down to, “That’s life”. Was that the point? To portray the “mundaneness of life”? Plenty of movies have done that in the past and they at least had an interesting story to counter it. Boyhood offers nothing to contrast its boring, unlikable protagonist. It’s like being forced to watch your neighbors’ home movies.

Being completely honest, this was the first time in years where I genuinely contemplated walking out of a movie. Now that I think of it, the last time was The Tree of Life. Go figure.

Review – Selma (2014)

As Cinemark’s Oscar Movie Week reaches its midway point, we come to possibly the most controversial film in the running for Best Picture this year. A lot of people are confused as to why Selma was only nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song. Frankly, I don’t think it should have been nominated for either.

First of all, from what I understand, the reason it was “snubbed” (I really hate that word, by the way) is because the studio was late in releasing its screeners to voters. It seems that most people just never saw the movie because of this and the fact that it had a sparse release in the first place. So how did it get nominated for Best Picture? I can only imagine it was word-of-mouth. People said it deserved it, so maybe voters wrote it in to give it a chance, and it just so happened to knock Gone Girl and Foxcatcher out to edge its way in.

Selma may be the first major studio production depicting the life of Martin Luther King Jr., but there is nothing original or even remarkable about this film. It has the production value of a made-for-TV movie and the acting to match. It’s better than something as abysmally idiotic as The Butler, and it’s not as politically manipulative as something like Fruitvale Station.

On the other hand, Selma is to the civil rights movement what countless religious movies are to religion. Even if it has heart and its intentions are pure, which I do believe they are, the production quality just isn’t enough to make it relative or persuasive. The politicians are flat and their interactions are repetitive. The movie follows a pattern of King arguing with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), followed by King talking to his wife, followed by a protest, followed by King returning to Johnson. It just goes on and on like that for the duration of the film with not a whole lot being accomplished or progressing.

David Oyelowo is not a bad actor, but he does not make an inspirational King, and virtually nothing King does in the film has any bearing on the story. The plot only moves forward when outside forces effect the situation. I feel like that’s an injustice to King, to not make it more clear and apparent that what he was doing and saying was an important factor in getting to where we are today.

Personally, I would have made a film that ended with King getting his Nobel Prize rather than opening with it. The fact is that the Selma story just isn’t very interesting. If it had been the climax to a story of the entire journey, it could have made for an epic, emotional conclusion. Instead, the movie is just a drawn out mess of repetitious preaching.

Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Cinemark’s Oscar Movie Week continues with a film that premiered almost a full year before it was nominated for Best Picture. Director Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily his best film to date, but for someone like myself who particularly loathes his work, that wasn’t a difficult task.

The story tells the adventures of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) of the prestigious titular establishment and his newly-hired lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). After one of the hotel’s most welcomed guests is murdered, the two set out to solve the mystery while running from the police who believe they did it. All of this is set to the backdrop of the limbo between the two World Wars.

Everything you would expect from a Wes Anderson film is present here. He’s never really grown as a filmmaker when it comes to writing or production. He has managed, however, to find a decent balance here. While I normally find his films stilted and off-putting, this time the themes and setting work well to compliment his style. The humor dark but also lighthearted in a way that gives it an old-timey feel. My only real gripe would be the pacing, which drags a bit here and there.

The performances from everyone involved are amusing and serve their purpose well. There are a lot of people in this, too. Along with Fiennes and Revolori, you have F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Edward Norton, and Saoirse Ronan, just to name a few. Goldblum especially stands out as the deceased woman’s attorney. He may not have made it back to Jurassic Park this year, but at least we got to see him don this goofy goatee in 2014.

I consider myself a forgiving person, so I’m willing to admit when someone whose work I have no always enjoyed accomplishes something genuinely charming. I won’t say he’s redeemed himself in my eyes, but for the first time in my life I can say that I am looking forward to the next Wes Anderson film.