Ralph Breaks the Internet is a great big honking mess. I sat there admiring the craftsmanship while somehow never quite being drawn in. I laughed, not consistently, but I laughed. It wasn’t a dumb idea, but it also wasn’t a well thought out or well-executed idea either.
I’ll say this: Ralph Breaks the Internet understands the internet better than most movies about the internet. At the same time, it’s also the most cynical movie I’ve seen all year. I thought Crimes of Grindelwald was a cash grab but Ralph Breaks the Internet is so naked in its product placement it should be cited for public indecency.
Why go through the trouble of mentioning Youtube, have its logo prominently displayed on the screen, only to have the main video sharing platform that acts as a fulcrum to the plot be called Buzztube? Better yet, why have a character like Mr. Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk)? He searches the internet for information. But a tower with the Google logo looms in the background all the while.
You could argue that this is a necessary evil. It is the internet after all. To some extent, I agree. When Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) goes to Oh My Disney it is a cute and somewhat honest representation of Disney. Stormtroopers walk the premises, loaded guns in hand, making sure everyone who is there is supposed to be there. The scene where Vanellope meets the other Disney Princesses is a highlight of the movie.
So much so we wish it was the movie. Part of the problem with Ralph Breaks the Internet is while it means to be about Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope, it’s really about Ralph. Stories which address and expose toxic masculinity are catnip for me, but by focusing on Ralph instead of Vanellope, Ralph Breaks the Internet essentially unintentionally wallows in its own toxicity.
Yes, the film is called Ralph Breaks the Internet and so it should be about him. Except it’s clear that the story so desperately wants to be about Vanellope. Stories are live wires and sometimes difficult to control. You may want the story to be one thing but the story has other ideas. In some ways, the movie is a front row seat to a titanic wrestling match. A struggle between the story, the storyteller, and the studio that owns them both.
Take the inciting incident, the reason this whole thing is happening. Vanellope is bored with her life. She’s raced all the tracks in her game and beaten all the levels. The challenges are gone. In an effort to cheer her up Ralph creates a new track for her. Seeing the new track, she goes offroad. What follows is a perfect meta visualization of Ralph Breaks the Internet. The gamer struggles at the wheel as Vanellope fights for control. In the end, the steering wheel for the game is broken and Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neil) says it’s time to junk Sugar Rush.
One of the kids finds a replacement for the steering wheel on E-bay but it costs too much and Litwak unplugs the game. All the characters in Sugar Rush are now homeless and Vanellope is without a purpose. So, Ralph decides to go to the internet to find this, “E-Boy,” and get her wheel back.
In some respects, the script by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon is perfect screenwriting. It follows all the rules. Ralph Breaks the Internet is engineered on the basis of “because” instead of “and then.” Because Ralph does this he must do this other thing. Because of wanting to buy the wheel they have to pay for it, but since they’re not human, and have no money, they have to get jobs. The way the actions leads to reactions is seamless but somehow rote. It follows the rules but forgets to sprinkle in the little things such as joy and character.
The original Wreck-It Ralph had more than two characters. Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), King Candy (Alan Tudyk), all had their own motivations and desires. Ralph Breaks the Internet has more than two characters as well, but not really. The only two characters with any motivation, with any real reason to care about, are Vanellope and Ralph. In a very real way, this breaks a seemingly perfect, on the surface, script because all the story and all the drama are meaningless.
Even Shank (Gal Gadot) comes across as bland and shallow. The lead character in Slaughter Race, Shank is a charismatic, independent leader who has Vanellope envious of her confidence and racing skills. But she has no purpose aside from having a conversation in which she gives Vanellope sage advice, which Ralph overhears, and overreacts to. Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn’t have characters, it has plot devices.
Getting back to my complaint about Ralph hogging the movie, remember I said ALL the characters in Sugar Rush are homeless. The rest of the arcade games are forced to take them in. Felix and Tamora adopt the other fifteen racers. Why go through the trouble of showing us the other characters dividing up the characters between them? What is the point of showing us Felix and Tamora discussing taking in fifteen little girls? Especially since it’s never mentioned again except for a brief implication and a tired gag toward the end?
Instead, we get a road trip with Ralph and Vanellope. But just as Vanellope finds a place she feels at home in, the aforementioned game Slaughter Race, the movie becomes less about Vanellope finding happiness and more about how her happiness and future make Ralph feel insecure and obsolete. I swear as a child I never realized how much of my entertainment was apparently made to make old white men feel they still have value and are capable of love and being loved.
Vanellope is forced to carry the emotional weight of Ralph’s neediness. Slaughter Race is a perfect fit for the little glitch but she feels guilty for wanting to stay because she knows how sad it’ll make Ralph. Friendships are a two-way street. Vanellope taking Ralph’s feeling into consideration is a mature and healthy thing. Much more so than Ralph, who goes to the Dark Web to find a virus to shut down Slaughter Race so Vanellope will come home with him.
I get that Ralph is distraught over possibly not being with Vanellope every hour of every day. But I don’t buy that in his anger and sadness he would forget that Vanellope is a glitch and might be susceptible to viruses that replicate insecurities. Especially when Ralph Breaks the Internet goes out of its way to remind us that Vanellope is a glitch by having her phase in and out whenever she begins to stress out.
All of this sounds good, but Vanellope has no real agency. The ending is happy only because Ralph decides to let her go, regardless of what Vanellope wanted or not. That Ralph’s decision is in line with what Vanellope wants is beside the point. He still had to rescue her due to a snowball of events set into motion because of his own self-centered emotional immaturity.
It doesn’t help that visually Ralph Breaks the Internet is a bright shiny penny. It’s pretty to look at but after a few seconds, it loses its varnish and you see it for the cheap metal it is. When Shank is having the pivotal conversation with Vanellope, the camera is off to the side at a low angle. Shank’s hair takes up much of the left side of the frame. Her hair looks remarkable, each strand carefully crafted. You almost want to reach out and touch it. But when the shot switches to have both their faces in the frame, notice how Shank’s face has no emotion.
Rich Moore and Phil Johnston seem to have skimped on character design. Again Ralph and Vanellope have wonderful facial reactions and behave as if they are inhabiting a world with other people. But Shank seems designed to be a gorgeous replica of the talent voicing her character. Gadot’s voice is perfect for a character like Shank, but her character design is lifeless.
I haven’t mentioned Moore or Johnston until now because Ralph Breaks the Internet has no life or personality. I fear I got so bogged down by expressing my problems with the script that I neglected to mention just how visually stilted the movie is as well. A shame considering, the aforementioned Princess scene, and the musical number with Vanellope, “In This Place,” show signs of intelligence and creativity.
The song is in the vein of The Little Mermaid and other Disney films. It’s cute but it never quite reaches rousing because again there’s no real choreography. 3d animation is much smoother while classical hand-drawn is much sharper in terms of edits and cut. Hand-drawn animation forces you to work within certain limits. But with 3d there’s more hesitancy to cut and have quick edits. Then again as popular as The Greatest Showman and Mama Mia are, they show a lack of great choreographers or at the very least a dearth of filmmakers who understand how to film a musical number.
The latter may have more to do with the feeling of a dragging pace of “In This Place” than the animation. Though how Vanelliope gets to the place to have the musical number is one of the few joys in the movie. The set up with the Princesses and the visual reveal is kind of perfect. Sadly, it’s one of a very few memorable moments.
Movies like Ralph Breaks the Internet sadden me more than they anger me. The shameless product plugs aside, its heart is in the right place. But Moore and Johnston can’t see how they’ve somehow minimized Vanellope’s problems by making them fodder for Ralph’s growth. The villain may be toxic masculinity but, intentionally or not, the duo also made it the hero as well.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios
‘Vox Lux’ Goes for Broke Almost to the Breaking Point
Warning: Vox Lux contains scenes depicting a school shooting that could trigger some viewers. It also has many scenes with rapidly flashing lights that may trigger those with photosenstivey disorder.
Vox Lux is a magnificently flawed film of abject fury and empathy. Not since this year’s earlier Sorry To Bother You have I witnessed a movie so consumed with passion and anger. I’m just not sure it’s any good.
It seems to be railing against our current obsession with what I guess you could call “distraction culture.” A culture aware of the horrors and atrocities going on around them but whose own futility at what can be done is usurped by its own need to feel joy. Vox Lux argues there are distractions and then there is ignoring things so you don’t have to think about them.
Yes, it’s healthy to practice self-care and not get too wrapped up in things beyond our control. But at what point is looking away to avoid being overcome by the horror of it all turn into ignoring everything else except for our own obsessive need for gratification. At least I think that’s the main thrust.
To say Vox Lux is about any one thing would be foolhardy. Gun violence, the dehumanization of celebrities, and how women are marketed less for talent and more for their bodies are all fair game. Truthfully I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. It’s hard to tell. For as giddy as I was watching Vox Lux I was also frustrated because I couldn’t quite understand what the film was trying to do. It didn’t help that the ending can be perceived as either irritating or brilliant. The film walks the knife’s edge of artistic brilliance and pretentious nonsense.
Brady Corbet structures Vox Lux as a fable about a young girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who survives a school shooting. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, his voice lends an air of forthright impenetrable honesty as he regales about the girl’s life. Celeste survives with a permanent spinal injury. At the memorial for the other students, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) play a song they wrote. The result is Lady Gaga/Beyonce inspired superstardom.
Vox Lux is one of those movies where I can tell you what happened but it doesn’t do it the justice of sitting there seeing it all unfold. Corbet makes every scene palpable, every frame pulsates with energy. The film feels alive and as such seems untamable as it explodes onto the screen before our eyes. Operatic and feverish, it never lets up no matter how much you may wish it to.
Celeste survives a school shooting, this is true. But Corbet makes us feel the horror and the tension of living through the school shooting. The ubiquitousness of gun violence both in our media and in our day to day lives has perhaps deadened the very real, violent, and disturbing reality of the actual experience. The driving anger of Vox Lux is in our inability to hold onto meaningful experiences and instead, dropping them and moving on to something else.
Natalie Portman plays a grown-up Celeste. A world-famous pop star, she is all but coming apart at the seams. In many ways, Vox Lux looks at how we enshrine celebrities and make them impossible beings. Portman’s Celeste is a pop star on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With her thick Staten Island accent and slicked back hair, Celeste powers through when she should clearly take a breath.
Celeste has a daughter of her own now, Albertine, also played by Cassidy. In an abrasive and uncomfortable scene, the adult Celeste attempts to have a heart to heart with her daughter. But Celeste is so closed off due to her stardom and drug abuse, she seems incapable of basic human connection. Her daughter asks her why she hates Ellie. Celeste responds with a rambling monologue about how nothing we do matters anymore because people just move on to the next thing. “I did a commercial a few years back. That stupid little thing where the rose opened up and I was little fairy inside with a soda can. I thought it’d ruin me. Know what happened? Nothing. Everybody forgot about it.”
It’s an old joke on the internet that the internet never forgets, but it’s only partially true. Yes, the internet is forever but our attention spans are not. Vox Lux isn’t pointing fingers so much as expressing a deep and volatile dissatisfaction with the way things seem to be heading. Art can offer answers but sometimes art can just be a cipher for our volatile and, sometimes, corrosive emotions.
At the same time during this same scene, the manager of the restaurant comes over and asks Celeste if he could take a picture with her. “I’m not going to post it. I just want it for me.” A celebrity’s time is rarely their own. Social media has made fans voracious in their need to be seen with people who “are just like them” but who never get to be treated like normal people.
Portman turns in what is her second best performance this year behind the earlier and still haunting and gorgeous Annihilation. But her work in Vox Lux is jaw-dropping for the kinetic energy she imbues in her Celeste. It is a fearless performance. Portman all but leaps from the screen and into the audience. Her Celeste is larger than life as she struts, dances, throws temper tantrums, all before turning to the screen and smiling. We root for Celeste while acknowledging what an absolute hell it must be living in her sphere.
After getting high, and having sex with Jude Law’s character known only as The Manager, the two stumble out of Celeste’s hotel room. I mention the scene only because Portman does one of the best pratfalls I’ve seen all year. I howled because Vox Lux is a movie that constantly pokes you, daring you to express either frustration or laughter. At the very least it wants you to feel something and tries in earnest to get, at the very least, a rise out of us.
The tightrope act the actors have to walk in the film is how nuanced they are. Law’s Manager character is as flawed and fleshed out as anyone in Mary Queen of Scots. He is at once kind and caring while also being manipulative and brusque. Notice the storm of conflicting emotions on Law’s face, and Portman’s for that matter, when she walks in on him holding Ellie in her arms. For all it’s bravado it’s the quiet moments between the screeching vibrato of its tone is where Vox Lux holds it’s most haunting and galvanizing power.
Much of the film’s power comes from the harsh and ingenious editing of Matthew Hannam. Just as you think we’ve got a bead on its rhythms it switches gears and out of our grasp. Aided by Lol Crowley, the cinematographer, the two create a living pulsating piece of artistry hellbent on making sure their screams into the abyss are heard. Crowley never puts the camera in a boring or wrong place. Even if the angle might be familiar the lens or lighting make it seem fresh and new. It allows us to decide for ourselves how we feel about certain moments and reactions.
I mentioned Portman’s pratfall earlier. While the theater was not packed, it was far from empty, but I was the only one laughing. I tell you this to illustrate how the film works differently for different people. A scene may be darkly comedic to me but to you or someone else, it may play as unbearably tragic.
During the last act of the film, we see Celeste perform her latest album, Vox Lux, to a teeming throng of adoring fans. Magically the concert footage feels like an actual pop concert. The vibrant and inventive energy the film has worked so hard to cultivate never evaporates. I sat in awe as they seamlessly blended realism with the dreamlike imagery of surrealism. Corbet, Crowley, and Hannam have sewn together disparate scenes that would in a lesser director’s hands seem like patchwork.
The ending, as previously stated, is abrupt; almost daringly so. A crucial piece of information is revealed just seconds before Corbet cuts to black. Because of how Vox Lux is presented, many moments seem weird or odd so after a while, we do not think much of them. But Corbet, mere seconds before the end drops a bombshell of a revelation that might be true or not. Dafoe’s narrator, whose voice exudes authority and honesty, delivers the line almost as an afterthought. I don’t know if it makes Vox Lux an inarguable masterpiece or if it pushes the film over the line from operatic to camp trash.
Most movies never know when to quit. Vox Lux quits arguably too soon. When I realized the credits were rolling, it took me a few seconds to realize it was over. Time flew by, though I’m not sure I would call the time spent watching Vox Lux fun. Engaging, certainly but calling it fun seems shallow somehow.
I like movies that are fun but sometimes I think we value the movies that are merely fun over the movies that are not. As if a movie not being fun is somehow an excuse not to engage with it. I’m not arguing that movies that are boring are good. I’m merely saying that, if we are to call movies art, then we should allow for a broader sense of what we demand from them.
Still, when the lights came on and I struggled to catch my breath, I knew some would find it too much. It is not a film for everyone, it never pretends to be. Its brashness and audacity have stayed with me and I get kind of giddy just thinking about it. Vox Lux is an act of untamed cinematic grandiosity that flails about with such brashness you might end up kind of annoyed. I loved every minute of it.
Image courtesy of Neon
Mary Queen of Scots vs. the Patriarchy
I am normally not a fan of period pieces set in the Elizabethan era. I came up in the 90’s back when Hollywood was flushed with them. Despite this genre prejudice I found myself utterly absorbed by Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. A smart, complex, enthralling tragedy so well paced and woven the Bard himself would be pleased.
Of the many feats Mary Queen of Scots somehow pulls off, is the slaying of the insistent but moronic myth that movies like these cannot be populated by queer people or people of color. They have always existed and are a part of history; regardless of what decades of whitewashed historical epics might have said. The inclusiveness of Rourke’s film is as refreshing as it is bold.
While Mary Queen of Scots may present itself as a costume drama about how Mary (Saoirse Ronan) tried and failed to unify Scotland and England, it is only partly about that. At its heart, it is a tragedy about two women Mary and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and how they are the head of their church and country but each sits at the heart of the patriarchy.
I’m not sure how historically accurate the script by Beau Willimon is but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real and when it comes to storytelling, that is the best we can hope for. Exiled to Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart attempts to bridge a peace with the Protestant Elizabeth I. Elizabeth refuses to marry or have children thus cementing her hold on the crown. Mary, on the other hand, is quite happy to marry and is, in fact, planning on having a child thus giving her a claim to the throne.
Don’t worry, Mary Queen of Scots is much more fascinating and moving than it sounds. For starters, Robbie’s Elizabeth is a woman on her own surrounded by men all but demanding she marry and sire an heir. Robbie is, per usual, magnetic.
Elizabeth confesses to her advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce), “I am a man. If I were to marry, my husband would surely wish to be my king. I will not bow to any king. I am the queen. You are the closest thing to a wife I shall ever have.” The moment is a perfect marriage of the perfect words for the perfect actress.
Mary Queen of Scots is shockingly adept at showing how remarkably little power women in power have when their counsels and envoys are men. Schemes and double crosses are made both for power but also so to free the country from “the yoke of female rule”. Time and time again Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I remain always pitted against each other.
Mary wishes nothing but to be named merely the next in line for the crown. But Elizabeth’s men cannot tolerate a Catholic laying claim and Mary’s men cannot fathom bowing to a Protestant. Round and round it goes with treachery and betrayal littering the road. Willimon’s script has an aura of fate inscribed into its structure. Even as Mary is charmed by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) we know he will be her downfall. Not because she is weak but because it will allow, by technicality, for there to be a way to kick her off the throne.
Ronan’s Mary loves her country even though it seems not to return her love. Ronan does not have the fierceness that Robbie has and in fact, her Mary seems innocent and naive comparatively. But Ronan is sly in her performance. Much like Elizabeth, we underestimate her but we soon grow to root for her.
Lord Darnley’s inevitable betrayal is uncovered and Mary is counseled to execute him. “I will not behave as some woman Henry the VIII beheading my husbands just to secure my throne. I took a vow to honor and love him.” Though he may not live with her, or rule with her, she will not break a vow taken before God.
Mary and Elizabeth both show courage and principle in a world filled with men who have neither. At one point Elizabeth, suffering from the pox, ailing, but still full of fire and grace, wonders, why she shouldn’t just name Mary as successor. Her advisors point out her failings to which Elizabeth laughs. In one of the best scenes Elizabeth lays out all that has been done to Mary and yet she still stands.
Mary for her part is dealing with a recently quashed civil war, a renegade Cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and a gay husband who is being blackmailed by her most trusted advisors to take the crown and give it to her brother James (James McArdle). Unlike Elizabeth, she refuses to give up her femininity or her right to love and passion. Rourke never says which queen is right or wrong, only that each queen is ruling in the way she feels is best.
Willimon’s script lays out each character so fully that we understand where each character is coming from even after only just meeting them. We understand Tennant’s Knox when he argues with Mary about accepting the Catholics. Willimon’s deep and abiding empathy flows through the very text of Mary Queen of Scots and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.
Gemma Chan, who was so wonderful in this year’s earlier Crazy Rich Asians is magnificent as Elizabeth Hardwick. A role with barely any words, she plays a friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s. Chan’s glances tell us more than dialogue can as she becomes increasingly worried about her queen.
Rourke and Willimon surround both Queens with an inner circle of ladies, each an extension of how the queen is perceived. Elizabeth’s are comforting but often quiet and reserved. Mary’s are much more outgoing and effusive in their praise. Mary show’s an inclusive streak herself when she allows a bard who seems to enjoy wearing dresses into her fold. She treats him as she treats her other ladies, and they accept him as so.
Scotland is a countryside we’ve often seen in movies. John Mathieson, who shot Logan, shoots Mary Queen of Scots with a lush and deft eye for rolling hills and misty beaches. For all the beauty he and Rourke never let us forget the grimy reality of the times. Yes, there are castles, but they are made of stone, the chairs do not look comfortable and when it rains, there is little hope of getting dry.
Mary Queen of Scots is breathtaking in its intimacy and drawn out tension. It is Rourke’s directorial debut in film and it is an announcement of confidence and joy of a craft. She has created a world that feels lived in and whose drama and characters feel immediate and real.
Full of political intrigue, but never dull or pompous, this is a generous movie filled with many tiny moments and gestures on the sides of the frame. It takes a great talent to portray a tragic tale of love, sisterhood, betrayal, and envy in such a way we feel exuberant rather than exhausted. Rourke is such a talent.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Avengers: Endgame Revealed
Just ignore the silly name. We all know Endgame is a bit stupid and maybe the internet can shame Marvel into changing it. Regardless of the name, we have our first look at Marvel’s epic conclusion to the story begun in Infinity War. The Avengers are back to undo the damage Thanos wrought upon the universe.
We don’t see anything unexpected here. Half of all life is gone, our heroes are sad, Tony Stark is lost in space on the verge of death (not really), and they have a plan to undo the Snap. Steve Rogers lost his beard, and I don’t mean whatever woman he currently “dates” to distract from his feelings for Tony. Hawkeye is back and Ant-Man shows up. Really the only thing missing is Captain Marvel. Come on, Marvel, we all know she will be there. You want Captain Marvel to make even more money than it already will? Let people not in the know aware of her role in the new Avengers movie.
In this humble writer’s opinion, Infinity War did a stunningly effective job with the ensemble superhero movie and set a huge bar for this latest entry to not only clear but even match at all. Can they possibly recapture that magic again? Who will live or die? What will the new Avengers team look like in the end? How will they undo Thanos’s villainy?
All I know is that Nebula better be a feature attraction here. Her relationships with both Thanos and Gamora demand it.
Avengers: Endgame will snap half the money out of existence this April.