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The Space Between Us
You ever watch a movie and then forget about it five seconds later?
In the not too distant future (next Sunday A.D.), Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) realizes his greatest vision when he sends a team of NASA astronauts to colonize Mars. The head of the team, Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) finds out she's pregnant two months into the expedition, with the baby due for arrival when the team... er, arrives, on Mars. She goes into labor soon after (in a pre-built dome that I guess another group had to go up there and build so they're not the first people to set foot on Mars, but semantics) and dies soon after she gives birth to Gardner (Asa Butterfield). Sixteen years later Gardner craves a life on Earth, driven further by a friendship he has with an anti social foster teen named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and a need to seek out his father whom he finds out through his mother's Earth paraphernalia. He breaks away from his team not long after landing, dragging Tulsa along on the search for his father, while Nathaniel and his caretaker Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) give chase to him before the Earth's gravity can damage his body not accustomed to our atmosphere.
Okay, so maybe saying I forgot about this movie five seconds after watching it is a little harsh, obviously I had to remember the basics to write that summary but... yeah, the bare bones is pretty much it when it comes to my recollection of what happens in it. And that's probably because the bare bones is pretty much what you get with this movie. Everything you see in this trailer will pretty much give you what to expect from it; the fish out of temporal water story mixed with some teenage romance and sciency gobbledy-gook. And if you were going in expecting a sappy love story between teens mixed with the fish out of water character and all that implies then you might walk out of this generally satisfied. But even then the movie's focus seems to be tugged in several different directions.
There's the main goal of Gardner trying to reunite with his father which enacts the road trip part of the movie, you have Nathaniel and Kendra chasing after him trying to get him back into space before he dies, you have the romance and Gardner breaking Tulsa out of her misanthropic shell, all the weird, futuristic technology that isn't so advanced that it looks implausible but still is a little distracting when you could so easily just set it in an alternate present, it's weird. And all the separate plot lines that make up the movie ultimately serve as a detriment to what could have been a good story if they'd focused on just one or two rather than the bunch.
Because the chemistry between Tulsa and Gardner on the surface isn't bad, and Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson have some good chemistry (the latter is also twenty-six years yet is still a pretty convincing teen, that's wild (and I hope not an insult to her talents or appearance)) and the idea of a kid coming from another planet to Earth is interesting. Maybe we didn't even need the father goal to begin with, why not just have the two wander aimlessly around Earth as he goes wherever his curiosity takes him? His curiosity in general takes a back seat to the road trip/father goal, with only one scene before they make the trip to Earth dedicated to him learning a bit of the culture and what to do when courting a woman (in what admittedly leads to a cute/awkward payoff sometime later), when you could have had him go through the Disney Princess syndrome and yearn for adventure in the great wide somewhere that's cliché but a true and tested way to get behind a character like him and the adventure they'll eventually go on. And the scenes where he does interact with foreign Earth concepts to him are pretty funny, some of Asa's physical delivery being spot on, but they're not really focused on that much in favor of corny scenes between him and Tulsa where he says clichéd stuff like, "Just because something sounds crazy doesn't mean it isn't true," or talking about how feeling rain or weather or whatever is nothing compared to what he feels with Tulsa (which is romantic in theory but overtly sappy in practice) and any interactions he has with stuff we take for granted on Earth is shoved aside in favor of the father goal and/or scenes of the duo stealing other peoples' cars and using their phones to get info and go to where they're supposed to... yeah, it's kind of hard to get behind them when they so flippantly do stuff like that.
You can pretty much figure out the character arcs and where they're gonna end up at the movie's finale the moment you're introduced to the characters too. Like when Kendra mentions she's infertile and didn't really have time to care about that to further her career, you know they're setting her up to embrace her maternal side by the end (which is a very tired and sexist trope that needs to die, it is possible for a woman to just not want kids guys) and you know with Tulsa who acts the part of a strong misanthrope, she's just a poor, fragile shell that's been mistreated by the world and needs the right manic pixie guy to show her how beautiful life really is... ugh. Also the whole father plot ends up in a really bad twist that makes the whole road trip feel entirely pointless when you think back on it. I won't give anything away but even if you're just a little bit surprised by the initial twist, you'll guess the second part of it pretty much immediately after and groan when the movie sets it up like it's a big reveal. Yeah, here's another big reveal; Benedict Cumberbatch's character in 'Into Darkness' was Khan.
As you can probably tell, the biggest problem with the movie is that it's pretty by the numbers. A checklist of a road trip/teen romance movie rather than one that truly tries to break the mold and do something different, even when it seems like they're doing that with the set up. And even then the road trip itself isn't that exciting. There are a few times when the scenery is nice but they don't really do anything that you might want to see a kid from Mars do on Earth. Freaking, they even go to Las Vegas at one point and spend all of three minutes down on the Strip before he gets overwhelmed by it all on top of the gravity literally killing him and he passes out. Like, wasted potential? You're not even gonna show them do some illegal gambling or something (not that I condone such things, but if they're already stealing cars) or flipping, watch the Bellagio fountain show since they're literally five seconds away from that? Granted I'm probably biased but why even come to Vegas if you're not gonna do anything with the setting? That's like if in "Rain Man" after the whole build up of Raymond being able to count cards so well they went to Vegas, spent five minutes outside the more famous casinos and then said, "Okay, let's move on." Don't you think you're missing out on some possibility here?
Yeah this movie's... not very good, but in comparison to other critical reviews it's been getting so far, I don't think it's awful either. It's a film that's perfectly serviceable and it knows it is. If you want some dumb teen romance to wile away two hours you probably will walk out of it all right, but if you were expecting a genuinely feel-good romance that gave you all the sappy feelings that make you happy to be a romantic (like myself) then you probably are better off looking elsewhere. The film manages to get an adequate pass from me due to some pretty decent acting in a pretty mediocre script and one or two pretty decent scenes as well. Apart from that it's fairly predictable (not helped by how blatant the foreshadowing is in it) and not all that interesting for it. Maybe you'll find something in there that makes it worth the watch, but for me the space between what few genuinely good parts are in it are a lot of dead air.
Technically it wouldn't even be air since there is none in space and-oh look, the teaser for "Stranger Things" season two... what were we talking about?
It's pretty much a common fact that if something remarkably unbelievable happened, such as a small boy being separated from his family and reuniting with them after a quarter of a century, it's gonna be a movie eventually. Whether that be to milk some award recognition or tell a genuinely good story, who knows, but in fairness stories like that deserve to be told to a wider audience for how amazing they are. And the story of Saroo Brierly is nothing short of amazing. He really did get lost when he was five years old and spend a good amount of time on the streets of India before finally being picked up by the police and eventually sent to a family in Australia willing to take him. That's amazing in and of itself considering how many unlucky children in India alone get worse endings, but to find his family again after twenty-five years is just a miracle (brought to you by Google).So yeah, even if it was just to get some Oscar bait it's definitely worth it so that people who didn't hear about it from the online grapevine or read Saroo's autobiography could know this story. You can probably tell that I, myself have not heard about this story until now and am floored by how much happened in order for him to get the closure he didn't know he needed. And yet, for a good chunk of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking not much happens at all.
Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a five year old boy living with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), his little sister, and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). One night, after Saroo insists his brother take him with him to his job, Guddu leaves Saroo behind at a train station for a little while to see about work and Saroo wanders into an isolated train that departs from his town just as he falls asleep in it. He is carried 1600 kilometers away to Calcutta, where he doesn't speak or understand Bengali and must live off the scraps in the street, avoiding those who wish to kidnap him for unmentioned (and all the more frightening for it) purposes. Eventually Saroo is taken into an orphanage where the kind Saroj Sood (Deepti Naval) arranges for him to be adopted by the Brierley's (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a couple in Australia. Twenty years later, an older Saroo (Dev Patel) goes off to college in Melbourne to study hotel management, where he gets into a relationship with a young woman named Lucy (Rooney Mara) and rediscovers his past through their mutual Indian friends, who suggest he use the new service Google Earth (this is circa 2008) to find an estimate on where his village might be. The search is on as Saroo desperately tries to find closure for a part of his life he had long locked away, but at what cost to his loved ones and his own health and sanity?
I don't mean to make it sound like nothing happens in this movie or nothing of consequence, a good chunk of the movie does have you very much invested in what happens to Saroo. That's mostly in the first part of the movie, where the five year old is wandering the streets of Calcutta and you're wishing with all your might he doesn't get snatched by any harmful adults or something of the like. When he's an adult Saroo's life is pretty easy going, even as he starts to devote a lot of time to finding his village and his family at the cost of his social life and career. And this is where the movie's overall structure doesn't quite work for me. Rather than telling the story in an old but trusted method of going back and forth between past and present, that is to say if the adult Saroo's search was used as a framing device to tell the story of young Saroo, the whole movie plays out as it did chronologically in real life, and I've never been a huge fan of that in movies.
I'm not saying it can't be done well, I'd be a hypocrite for saying so since I enjoyed "Boyhood" so much, and that whole movie's shtick is telling the life of a child maturing to a young man in the chronological span of twelve years. With that movie, however, telling it chronologically is very much the point and the story wouldn't work otherwise. You see the progression of his childhood and his maturity and you end up with a very different character than who you started with, and the same is kind of true here but not as well realized. The trailers I did see for the movie made me believe that they were gonna go for that framing device telling and it's safe to say I probably prefer that kind of storytelling method for movies like this that span as much time as it does. The huge time skip from Saroo as a child to him as an adult feels a little weird because of it and almost disjoints the movie so that the first half feels like an entirely different movie altogether. I don't know if using that framing device method would've bridged the two halves any better but it's just a bias I have when it comes to stories I guess, maybe you don't mind it at all and won't in this film, that's fair. But it also contributes to my comment on how it feels like nothing really happens in the second part even though a lot does emotionally.
Since the first half focused so much on how hard young Saroo's life is and makes you really empathize with him and fear for him when he's forced to go through a dangerous situation, the second part's major conflict is his drifting apart from his family and girlfriend because of his dedication to his search, and that's just not as strong as what we saw in the first part. It's still an important conflict but you also have some strange time skips here too where apparently months if not years went by as he devoted himself to the mania of his search and you don't really feel that, it's more or less just told to you by the characters or by the time stamps onscreen. It doesn't kill the movie but it does make the pacing feel a little sluggish whereas the first half's was golden and gripping.
But for all my complaining I can't pretend like this isn't a really good movie. It is, and a good chunk of that falls on the actors themselves. Obviously you have recognized greats like Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel who are getting a lot of buzz for their performances, as well as Rooney Mara and David Wenham plus the plethora of Indian actors who are actually pretty well known in Bollywood or as models so that's nice that they got a little recognition over here too. But the one performance that absolutely steals the show is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo, my God does this kid blow everyone else away for what he had to do. It's no secret that child actors are a gamble, especially when you're dealing with a small army of them for a movie that strongly features homeless children (and that's every bit as sad as it sounds), but every kid in this movie was like looking at a genuine kid forced to live through terrible situations. Sunny portrays a wide variety of emotions in this movie, from naively hopeful to apprehensive to scared and alone and he does them all with such ease it puts actors ten times his age to shame (and he was five years old as they were filming this, FIVE. YEARS. OLD.)
One particular, subtle scene is when he's taken in by this lady who seems to have good intentions who tells him this guy she knows can help him find his mother, and there's a terrible unease throughout the whole scene like you're expecting something bad to happen for how both her and the guy she introduces him to are a little too... personal space invading. Saroo notes this too, and there's a bit after the meeting of that guy where he's pretty quiet and standoffish of her seemingly friendly interactions with him and you can tell he's contemplating whether to stay or run, and it's all without any dialogue on his part yet you can see the wheels turning in his mind and that's really hard for a child actor to pull off, especially one his age. Kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for, sure, and their imagination probably makes them ideal actors in theory, but still they don't quite grasp sometimes that you're not just acting as a character, you're living as a character. You have to act and think not how you would, but how your character would, and do it without a hint of hesitance in order to make the audience buy it. Sunny does, in every scene he's in, and it makes for a truly heartbreaking and powerful performance that is worth a full price ticket alone.
Even if the structure of the film isn't entirely to my liking and you could argue it's being blatantly manipulative of your emotions or trying to push the wonders of Google Earth or a charity that they advertise during the end credits, it's still a very powerful film that does call out to your empathetic side and calls attention to a very good charity that focuses on lost children in India that is still as bad an epidemic as when Saroo was lost more than thirty years ago (and I'm not guilt tripping you into donating for said charity, but it is a very noble cause and you can easily do it through the movie's website lionmovie.com, every bit helps). The movie never feels manipulative either, not even during the major tear jerker scene at the end (and oh, it worked wonders for me), it's just telling a semi-accurate (because I'm sure there's some fabrications here and there, it's Hollywood) story about one of the lucky ones who is using his luck to call attention to the plight of thousands, and that's very admirable in my book. All in all, this movie is definitely deserving of the buzz and praise it's received and is definitely worth a watch if it's playing in a theater near you. It may be the perfect Oscar bait movie, but it's something a little more noble than that, and for that, I'm heartbroken and grateful to the filmmakers all at once.
It's easy to forget that fast food chains as we know it are a relatively new business franchise. A century ago you wouldn't see places like Wendy's or Burger King or, of course, McDonald's on every other street corner of the most populated cities. That concept didn't really take off until the McDonald's chain started to become more popular around America and reach out across other countries around the globe. All the way back in the 1950s. Yeah, we take a lot of stuff for granted and that's the truth. But a lot of people either don't know or don't care how these popular food chains got their start. How, almost overnight, they grew from these smaller eating establishments to household go-to's when everyone was too lazy to think of a proper meal for dinner (guilty). "The Founder" at least covers how McDonald's got to that point, centering around its acquisition by entrepreneur Ray Kroc and how he single-handedly screwed over two brothers and their modest little restaurant, turning it into the biggest franchise in America, if not the world, and ensuring they didn't see a cent of royalties... yeah, this origin story is pretty dark.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling traveling salesman trying to market a milkshake maker to several drive-ins across the country, to little success. He gets an unusual call one day from a Richard "Dick" McDonald (Nick Offerman) for an order of six machines that intrigues him enough to travel to San Bernardino to the restaurant itself and is floored by the quick service and quality food. After receiving a tour from Maurice "Mac" McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and seeing how efficient the work ethics are, he proposes to the brothers that they make a franchise of their little restaurant, expanding all across the mid-west. The deal is struck but Kroc soon begins to crave for more than just the mid-west and more than the meager restrictions imposed by the McDonald brothers. He begins pitching the idea to some of his richer friends, as well as a few small name business people, alienating the brothers and his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) until his ambitions lead him to hiring Harry J. Sonnenborn (B. J. Novak) and turning his own company into a real estate corporation, using it to own and lease the land of wherever he decides to build a restaurant and to whomever he sells it to. His actions obviously are not to the brothers' liking, but as the chain begins to grow larger than anyone expected and Kroc becomes richer and richer, the brothers McDonald learn the hard way of a capitalist dog eat dog world.
I was privy to the backstory that the McDonald's namesake owners were royally screwed over long before seeing this movie, but the funny thing is I don't exactly remember where I heard it. It could've been in school or online or something, but I was well aware in the back of my mind that McDonald's as we know it didn't get where it is today by the ones responsible for getting it there playing fair ball. It was one of those facts that probably wasn't touched upon in great detail when I first learned it so I probably said, "Sucks," and moved on with my life not giving it any deeper thought, same with a lot of rags to riches stories in this money driven society. But the more you think about it, the whole unpleasantness between Kroc and the McDonald's is a really great story. One I'm surprised it took them this long to make a movie out of. And yeah, much like director John Lee Hancock's last "Based on a true story," film, "Saving Mr. Banks," I'm sure they embellished a few facts for drama and made up some stuff altogether but that's common of every biographic movie. What makes a good or great biopic is how close they stick to the tone of what actually happened, and based on what I've heard and read up on about the rise of McDonald's, I'd say it's pretty true to what actually happened all those years ago.
But the thing that also sets this movie apart from any other movie that might have an agenda against big business or capitalism in general is that the movie doesn't paint Ray Kroc as a bad guy, at least not initially. He's fifty-two when the movie starts out, probably knee deep into a mid-life crisis what with his financial stability not being where he wants and struggling to make any good deals with a product he doesn't really believe in but has to sell regardless. He's not portrayed as a wide-eyed idealist who wants to change the world or truly believes in the stuff he's saying to sell his products, but you can still relate to him on that base level of wanting a little more in life. And as the film goes on and shows him expand the McDonald's chain, even when he makes a few questionable decisions and acts a bit dismissive of the brothers, he's still honoring their wishes to keep the business organic and family friendly. It's not until later when even bigger bucks start flashing in his eyes does he start to get nasty, and good God when I say nasty I mean really nasty, almost to the point where you can't stand him by the end. It's not easy to have that kind of character be your protagonist and make him somewhat likable even as he does these terrible things, but his fast talking business sense and charm almost makes you believe in him, even when you know he's lying through his teeth. Michael Keaton was probably the best choice for a role like this, known for playing these kind of fast talking, jerky but likable characters in his youth (Betelegeuse anyone), and all around being a genuinely likable actor no matter what role he plays (almost). Seriously, Keaton's the main reason I wanted to see this movie to begin with and he knocks it out of the park as usual, continuing the high he's been on since 'Birdman' and I hope he doesn't come down any time soon (he's been in the dark too long).
Everyone else in the cast is great too, especially Offerman and Lynch as the McDonald brothers who both play the roles they were basically born to play. Nick Offerman is the typical Nick Offerman character; Soft spoken yet stern and blunt, playing an archetype of a no-nonsense businessman who isn't afraid to get abrasive. John Carroll Lynch plays the much meeker Mac; An optimist who sees the good in everybody and aims to please everyone, not giving much of a wink for his own needs. The two offset each other nicely and their contrasting personalities and how they both deal with Kroc endears you to them and makes you care when slowly but surely they get further out of the loop of their own namesake until their very name is taken away from them. Honestly if I had to complain about any of the casting or characters I would say that Kroc's first wife, Ethel, doesn't get a whole lot of depth to her apart from the scenes that are basically there to show how detached Kroc is getting from humanity (as it were) the deeper he takes his business. It would've been neat to see a bit more confrontation between the two. You see one scene of that, that happens to be her first physical scene, where Kroc snaps at her and says he wishes she was more supportive, and she snaps back saying she's been nothing but supportive, but after that she's kind of just there. Going along with Kroc and what he does with a grimace or two but not offering much in the way of standing up for herself or calling him out on anything. Her final scene is just them eating at the dinner table (minor spoilers here but it's a biopic, you can figure this out with a quick Wikipedia search) and Kroc up and says "I want a divorce," and that's it. They're both silent and we cut to the divorce lawyer afterwards. I don't know, I just would've liked to see her and him have a few more arguments, make her question himself and how far he's willing to go just to fatten his own pocket. Maybe that'd be too cliché since a lot of other biopics go down that route, but it'd be no less intriguing here, and give her a little more to do in the process.
There are times where the movie can feel a little too documentary too. Like the scene where the McDonald's and Kroc go out to dinner and the brothers explain their life story and how they developed the fast system that allows them to make and deliver the food so quickly, I feel like you could've tightened the pacing a little bit and not relied on old pictures of the brothers and their past business ventures so much to make the flow a little smoother. It's still interesting to get this info, especially if you didn't know about it or only had a basic grasp of it, but it kind of slows the movie down a bit too much in the beginning. I feel like we also didn't get to see a whole lot of Kroc's richer life after the settlement with the McDonald's either. Most of that is saved for the last ten minutes and it would've been nice to see a little more of that just to see how far he's come and how low he's sunk.
But in the end, as far as biopics go this one is pretty solid. It may bog itself down on facts at times and not offer a whole lot of characterization for most of the supporting cast, but it does make you think about the true founding of McDonald's as it is today and might even make you reconsider eating there so frequently (you know, apart from the health reasons). In fact I'm almost surprised McDonald's even let a movie like this get made when it casts a bit of a shadow of their company history. I don't know, it's the same thing as how they portrayed some of the less family friendly sides of Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks," it doesn't ruin the image as a whole, I don't think. It's also nice that a movie isn't afraid to show some of the shadier traits of a beloved or popular icon or franchise, much like some of the iffier traits that Mr. Luther King had in "Selma." You can address the bad as well as honor the good, and while I wouldn't say this movie is really honoring anybody, it also isn't outright vilifying anyone either. You get Kroc's motivation and you can even see where some of his ideas benefit the company more than the meager ones the brothers adhere to. Overall, it's a biopic that doesn't portray a clear, moral character and that makes it all the more interesting to me. I say it's definitely worth a watch if you're interested. Maybe even watch it over a nice Big Mac and fries while you're at it (dang their fries are good).
When A Monster Calls
There are many ways we deal with grief, and many ways other people help us to cope with it. And grief, no matter where you are in life, is inevitable. It can be especially hard when you're forced to face it at an earlier stage of your life. When you're a kid it can be difficult to process the death or impending death of a loved one. You may choose to ignore it, wish that it isn't happening, or your outlet for expressing this grief could be destructive and damaging, and maybe the inverse is true as well, and holding it in is even worse. No matter which way you look at it, grief is never easy to go live through. Thankfully, there are stories that seem to get that, express it in ways that can help people where words or actions fail. These stories can even come from the most unlikely places in the most unconventional ways. And what's more unconventional than the love-child of Groot and Treebeard coming to tell a teenage boy cryptic stories while his mother is slowly dying, I ask you.
Thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives with his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), who suffers from terminal cancer, having to take multiple medications and return to the hospital frequently. When her condition worsens, Conor's grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) has him come live with her, much to his displeasure. His distant father (Toby Kebbell), also comes to provide some support to his son for as long as he can, but they all find it's difficult to get through to Conor. The only one who seems to be getting anywhere in understanding the boy, is someone who claims he already knows everything about him. Enter the Monster (Liam Neeson), an ancient yew tree personified and one who goes walking when Conor unknowingly summons him. He tells Conor that he will visit him a number of times, always at seven past twelve, and tell him three stories that he needs to hear. Then Conor will tell him a fourth story about a nightmare and a truth he doesn't want to face, and only then will he be ready. But can Conor face his fears and the truth that has been gnawing at him for a very long time?
There's a lot about this movie that makes it unique, even if it's a pretty typical story about coming of age and dealing with grief. We've all seen these stories before, and some of them are told in pretty fantastical ways similar to this film, mostly used to help kids have an understanding of their feelings and process them in a way they can better understand that isn't too depressing. Heck, not even kids movies do this, Tim Burton's "Big Fish" used the exaggerated stories of the main character in a similar manner near the end to effective (and heartbreaking) results. This movie and the book it was based on I don't think were explicitly made for kids or young adults though, its themes and some elements are a bit more mature than what you'd find in a common story like this geared with them in mind and there's no guarantee if you took them to see this or if they read the book (which I myself have not read but may in the future after seeing this) they'd be completely enthralled by either. However, this isn't the kind of movie, even if it is rated PG-13 (and I disagree with the MPAA rating system on a number of films anyway) that I would discourage kids from seeing either. It's the kind of movie that anybody of the right age (I don't know, maybe ten upwards) could sit down and watch and get something valuable from it. A great and compelling story with characters you empathize with and characters that are all flawed in the realest of ways, and a great allegory for dealing with loss and all the complicated feelings that might come with it. Told in a manner that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, never talking down to its audience, no matter how old they are, to describe the meaning behind it.
Any movie that doesn't treat its audience like sheep that have to be told everything of what's happening will automatically get points in my book. You'd think more "adult" movies wouldn't do this as much, but you'd be surprised with some movies, and not in the pleasant sort like this film. No, "A Monster Calls" actually has something called faith in its audience, and it keeps that faith all throughout its near two-hour run time. The movie only explains what needs to be explained, and when it does you may still have questions afterward, and that's perfect for a movie that deals with a subject that no one has all the answers to. This is especially the case with each of the Monster's stories, presented as typical fantasy-esque tales at first before he introduces a complex twist that turns the characters complex as well. An apparent witch may be unguilty of any real crime, a good person may do a wicked deed, belief may be rejected if it is not true and can be changed at the slightest inconvenience, and the action of wanting to be seen when you feel invisible may be worse than feeling invisible itself. Conor is probably as confused as the audience is after hearing each story the first time, but we're left to determine the meaning behind them ourselves, as he is, and that gives all of them much more staying power than if the Monster had told him what it meant. It leaves us room to think for ourselves and have discussions either with other people or ourselves to figure out what it all meant, and that makes the story last a lot longer in your head. Gives it weight that other, simpler stories don't have. The movie operates on that "let the audience think for themselves" philosophy in much of the way it plays out and was shot. There are a few scenes where we're left alone with Conor and there's minimal dialogue, where he could be looking at old photos of his mom, grandmother or people long gone that may give some mundane meaning behind the Monster and his stories, but it's just speculation. As is how real the Monster truly is or if it's just Conor acting through his complex emotions.
"Complex" is a great word to describe just about everybody in this movie. No one is completely morally right or wrong, people may make questionable choices or do terrible things but that doesn't make them inherently evil or inherently good. They're just people. Conor and his grandmother don't get on very well and both don't hide that fact from each other, but she's trying to do right by him and support her daughter in the best way she can through her difficult treatments. His dad is distant and doesn't want Conor to come live with him and his other family since it will make things more difficult for all of them, but he also loves his son and still loves his ex-wife in the way you can for someone like that. Even Conor's mom, who is probably has the least negative traits of anyone in the movie, she still allowed herself to more or less be the one Conor has to take care of. This thirteen-year-old kid has to make his own breakfast, walk himself to school, have her medicine on standby in case she needs it, he has to act as her caretaker when it should be the other way around. He doesn't mind it, or doesn't seem to anyway, but it still isn't something that should happen to a child his age, and she seems to recognize it in a later scene where she tearfully apologizes to him. No one is without fault in the movie, everyone has a scene or several scenes where they make a mistake and they all have to deal with the consequences. But that's life. It's complicated and complex, and we are too.
What also makes the movie special is that there is no way it could've worked if it didn't have the talent it does. Every actor and actress and everybody in the production and effects crew truly deserve unanimous praise for this movie and all it does. I mean, you have people like Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell who may not always choose the best projects but always do their best and always give the best performance they can even if circumstances aren't conducive for a successful movie, and Sigourney Weaver who I'm pretty sure has never had a bad performance in her life (and does a very convincing British accent except for one little slip but the rest is pretty solid). Liam Neeson's vocal performance as the Monster was also a pleasant surprise. Obviously it was pitched somewhat to make it deeper and a bit more menacing than his voice naturally is (though, as I'm sure his famous "Taken" monologue will attest, he can pretty intimidating with his natural voice) but he gives it a wide array of emotions where he's sometimes not really known for emoting exceptionally well (I guess it's different when it's something he actually cares about, I mean, he also did this which nobody saw coming). Child actors especially deserve praise when they knock it out of the park, and for being his first major film role Lewis MacDougall was freaking perfect. Nothing about his performance felt like... well, a performance! And he has to convincingly portray a kid who is angry, sad, just plain emotionally exhausted throughout the whole movie, and he makes it seem easy! If he wants to he could definitely go far in his career based on this performance alone, proving he's more than capable of the weight of an important, emotional role such as this one and crushing it.
The visual effects deserve some recognition too, as does the animation for the stories. The Monster isn't seamless or anything with the real life characters, you know he's CGI, but at the same time this is meant to be a fantastical (albeit low key) story so a realistic tree monster (of which there are scarce in this world) was never in the cards. But they don't just use Neeson's voice for the part either, they used motion capture with him and MacDougall in a sound stage to get the performance and his interactions with Conor just right, and it's great when motion capture is used like that. To bring these beings to life and do it in a way that feels natural, even if you can tell it's not really there. I could swear that the animated sequences were done by the same people behind the animation in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" for the Tale of Three Brothers sequence or 2008's "The Tale of Despereaux" (not the best or most memorable movie in the world, but the animation was nice at least) for how much the stories reminded me of both. When the first story was told and the movie shifted to an animated, water color style for a brief period of time was where it really hooked me and didn't let go afterwards. Both animation bits for the first two stories are pretty short but serve as real scene-stealers in an already impressive movie.
Look, if you know me and are familiar with my reviews at this point you'll already know I recommend this movie. I could think of very little to complain about it, even as I was warming up to it in the first act, and what little complaints there are are nothing more than nitpicks that aren't worth bringing up for how good the rest of it is. And maybe I'm wrong and there's some objectionable stuff in there I didn't catch but I think it's a great movie to bring kids to as well, not just yourself or your friends or spouse or whoever you bring with you to movies (maybe the hobo down the street, I dunno). Bottom line is, you should see this movie. The themes and execution treat the audience with a great deal of respect, the emotion is poignant and will probably strike a chord in the easily emotional (like me, cried a little by the climax, cried hard in the last ten minutes), and the final result is a well made story that should feel repetitive to what we've seen before but feels totally fresh for how imaginative and how mature it is. If you're looking for a truly great film to watch in the slog of major studio releases that is January, this is that film (helps that it was released back in December but I'm just now getting around to it, shut up).
What, what, what? I have a Facebook page now?! EL GASP! Give it a like or a follow if you want to keep up to date on reviews for whatever (geddit) and anything else movie/media related that interests me. No idea what exactly I'll do with it as of yet apart from just dumping reviews but let's find out together! Okay, shameless self-advertisement over, good day.
La La Land
Do you ever pine for the olden days? Maybe even pine for olden days that you weren't actually around to be part of? It seems like everybody has that one time period they'd love to actually live in, and maybe they're disillusioned by our current times so much that the nostalgia of these times seems comforting even if they acknowledge in the back of their mind it wasn't all glitz and glamour. This is the fascination with old Hollywood that most people have, where the films were grand in scope, the actors and actresses were all revered through soft lenses and sweeping music, and the musicals were king. In the wake of New Hollywood and more control being placed on the producers along with the rise of blockbusters, the types of movies you'd see that spanned the thirties through the fifties became lesser and lesser, making way for the types of movies we see today, big budget extravaganzas either through superheroes or space fights or other conflicts normally resolved through other methods than tap-dancing and musical soliloquies. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, and I'm not saying that the nostalgia for Old Hollywood automatically makes those times any better than they actually were (yeah, the movies were classics but let's be real, inclusiveness and better treatment/pay for groups like writers and even actors left a lot to be desired), but when you watch something like "Singin' in the Rain" or "Casablanca" or any other classic movie you can't help but ponder why they don't make more movies in this grand style anymore. Why they all had to die out in favor of another genre, as it seems is the typical Hollywood tradition; "Out with the old, in with the new." And that's why it's always nice when you have films like this, little tributes to those bygone days and movies that have inspired people to get into the business or create music in the first place. Yet, for how much this movie was advertised as a big tribute to those olden days, I got the feeling after watching it that it also doesn't completely seem to embrace them either. Why is this? Well, if you'll permit me, please allow me to ponder.
Hollywood. Another day in the sun, another tale of two souls desperately trying to make it in a town that seems designed to prevent people like them from succeeding. Mia (Emma Stone), an on-set barista in the Warner Bros. lot has big dreams of being an actress, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has dreams of opening his own Jazz club and preserving what he sees as a dying art form. Naturally, conflicts will arise in trying to achieve both dreams, with plenty of people who ignore them or shoot them down. That is, until they happen to discover each other by chance and strike a strange relationship, stemming from animosity to like to love, in the typical old fashioned Hollywood romance. As they go on in their relationship the two inspire each other to follow their dreams, Sebastian telling Mia to forget regular auditions and put on her own one-woman show, and Mia encouraging him to get a gig with an old band-mate named Keith (John Legend), which he accepts only so that it can support them financially. The months roll by, their relationship continues, but slowly and surely it becomes apparent their career paths cannot stay in the same course if they continue to pursue them as they are. Do they accept this and move on with their aspirations, or do they stay the course and keep on pursuing a dream that will never be. Living in a perpetual La La Land.
That's my main takeaway from this movie, that the film isn't painting the golden days of Hollywood or Jazz in a negative light, but it's also not outright glorifying them either apart from big, bombastic musical numbers that evoke the time periods both were in their heyday. Because, unlike how it's advertised, those scenes are pretty few and far between what plays out as a pretty modern and typical romance story. And don't get me wrong, it's not a bad romance story at all, being a huge romantic myself it's actually one of the better romances I've seen in a movie in a long time, but still, I couldn't shake off the feeling that it wasn't exactly the movie that was being sold as the return of the glorious throwback to classic Hollywood musicals. The throwback is definitely there, and it's spectacular when it happens, but it's in small doses spread out through the film, but there's a bit more under the surface to that throwback and how it relates to... well, the relationship.
Before I get into my own interpretation I should probably just stick with what's actually on the surface, and what's on the surface is a very well made and very well acted movie through and through. One of those typical romance stories that didn't need to be as well made or acted as it really is. Because you've seen this story done to death before, you've seen movies use the seasons to tell a romance story, they meet in Winter and get off to a bad start, their romance blooms in Spring and is in full force in Summer, and you can probably guess what's gonna happen in the Fall after that (read Fall), and it's a pretty common trope used to symbolize the process of a relationship. That Simon and Garfunkel song "April Come She Will" is a classic example of an affair that eventually goes south and even "The Great Gatsby" has a great example where Gatsby and Daisy's affair runs through the heated days of summer until it comes crumbling down the hottest day and dries to the cold, bitter days of Autumn after a certain part of the book. It's an old trope, but it checks out, and it's no less used effectively here. And even if you have an idea where it's going to go because of that trope, you do still care about the romance as it happens.
That's the key to any tired old story told a dozen times, if you care about the characters it can supersede how cliché it really is, at least that's how I look at it (which I'm sure has been made apparent by how forgiving I can be towards certain movies, I'm sure). And you do get swept up in the romance and the chemistry between Mia and Sebastian, how they seem to get each other and their passions and work together to encourage each other to pursue them. You get all sappy-happy when they get doe-eyed around each other and when they dance around the city without a care in the world and you wish that their relationship could stay that way and they could be successful and happy at the same time. But alas, and like most good romantic comedies illustrate, this is not always how life works. Especially when you're trying to make it in a business like show business.
Now, my own interpretation of the movie relies heavily on the use of those big, bombastic musical numbers and the way Sebastian pines for the old days of Jazz, being adamant in preserving and playing it the way he wants, even as he joins Keith's band that takes a more modern spin on it. Although the movie didn't make it as clear as it could have been, something akin to the imaginations of Roxie from "Chicago" and how the Jazz musical numbers were presented as figments of said imagination, Mia was very much inspired by the classic Hollywood movies to get into acting, movies that were introduced to her by her aunt who breathed those kinds of films. In a way, you could imagine that the musical numbers are the combined imaginations of Mia and Sebastian, the music and the way they're shot evoking the glory days of Jazz and the Hollywood musical. The movie doesn't give a clear answer whether it's meant to be taken that way or not, but it operates on the basic musical logic that people just happen to sing and dance on occasion and it's no big deal (the opening number really makes me wish you could do this when traffic is at a standstill on a crowded highway, I can tell you that). At least, that's how it is for the first half of it. As they go on with their relationship and their career paths set to drive them apart, the musical numbers and big Jazz breaks are fewer and fewer, the cold, harsh reality creeping in on both of them how many dreams die in this town and relationships with them. It almost feels like, apart from a big climactic number that evokes those musical soliloquies I mentioned before, the movie drifts further away from a classical musical the more reality creeps in and they realize they have to give some stuff up if they want to continue with their dreams. Maybe even each other.
Cheery interpretation, isn't it? And I'm not saying that was the actual intent of Mr. Chazelle when he wrote this, or if it is meant to be a straight up throwback to musicals and Jazz and the lack of those big set pieces later on in the movie is just meant to heighten the drama, but that's what I felt watching it, especially since I figured it was gonna be way more of a traditional love letter to those things from the trailers alone (and I didn't see too many trailers for it at that, so maybe that's my fault). Regardless of intent, the movie is still very well made and acted no matter how you look at it from a modern or nostalgic lens. I certainly appreciated the big musical numbers and the way they were shot as mostly oners and to get longer shots of the crowd like how they did it back in the day, with just a touch of modern editing and shooting conventions so that it didn't feel too archaic. And huge props both to Gosling and Stone who performed all their singing and dancing, I had no idea either had it in them. They evoke the classic Jazz and Hollywood Starlet both, and their tap-dance and waltz numbers serve as the highlights of the movie and their relationship. Probably my favorite scene in the whole thing was Emma Stone's big number near the end where she does give a final, optimistic love letter to the old films Mia used to watch with her aunt and inspired her to be an actress, giving a perfect tribute to that time period even for how I felt it seemed to be deconstructing it a bit as well. I especially loved the fact that it was, again, a oner and that it circled around her head in that beautiful method used for the most beautiful soliloquies that I can never get enough of. There is also an extended fantasy sequence through the film that left the movie on a great emotional high note that I won't dare spoil here.
So yeah, all in all this was a great movie to bid the year adieu to. A nice little homage to musicals and musical styles that have gone mostly underappreciated by today's audiences and a genuinely emotional love story for all the right reasons. Would I say I loved it as much as other critics and audiences who have given it near perfect reviews? No, not personally, but I'm also glad I saw it and could see myself watching it again, and even listening to some of the songs and music independently of it (heck, I'm doing it right now while writing this, that opening number is too dang catchy). It does follow a bit of the same old plot threads as other romantic films, but it also does enough that you won't completely predict how it will end either and I appreciated it for that among other aspects. Beautifully shot, with beautiful songs and some beautiful, genuine romance that may leave you teary-eyed, "La La Land" is a lovely movie for a lovely night that can be enjoyed by all. Maybe by yourself, or maybe you can find someone in the crowd to enjoy it with (if I work in any more song titles from this I'm gonna be morally obliged to jump in a freezing lake bare naked so I'll stop here).
But seriously, this song, it's gonna be the last thing I hear before I die, I know it.
Chances are, if you've been to see a family geared movie, or if you've just been to the movies period, in the past few months, you've seen some sort of advertisement for Illumination Entertainment's second offering of 2016, "Sing." Perhaps part of the reason their films do so well (what with their other film released this year, "The Secret Life of Pets," grossing over 875 million and earning a spot as the fifth highest grossing movie of the year worldwide (even beating out 'Batman v. Superman,' that's gotta feel good over at Warner Bros.)), is that they really know how to market their movies. Maybe even over market them. I swear I've seen trailers for this movie released as early as March, and if I haven't it certainly feels like it. Maybe it wasn't so bad for people who don't go to the movies that often, but I saw so many trailers for this movie attached to so many different films you wouldn't think it'd have a trailer in front of (I could almost bet money I saw it during a screening of "Lights Out" or some other horror movie) that I was starting to get a little sick of it. Most of the trailers revealing key scenes and plot points that let you know exactly what kind of movie you were gonna see months in advance didn't really give it any points either. But, to be fair, I was never completely turned off to this movie either. If nothing else I was drawn in by the movie being an ensemble piece, a type of movie you don't really see done in animation, and I thought with the talent they were getting voice-wise there could be some pretty good covers of all the famous current or classic songs everybody knows off the top of their heads. So, yeah, it was a mixed bag but I was open to this movie, like I was open to 'Pets' which also saw a great deal of over marketing (but if it ain't broke, and they certainly aren't broke, I guess there's no sense in fixing it). But if you've read my thoughts on 'Pets' (which I'm sure you did) you'll know that I wasn't too into that movie. I thought it was okay but nothing really remarkable, the side characters stealing the show from the leads who felt pretty bland and the story pretty basic. So how does this movie compare? Well, it definitely doesn't get points for originality in the plot department or even some of the basic characteristics of our ensemble cast but, despite knowing exactly the kind of movie I was gonna get and predicting almost all the plot points beat by beat, I actually found myself really enjoying this movie. Is it great, no, but... it's so likable?
Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) has hit some pretty rough times with his theater. The shows attract almost no one and he can barely afford to keep up with repairs and bills and keep his theater afloat. As a last ditch attempt he proposes to his lifelong friend, Eddie Noodleman (John C. Rielly), whose grandma, Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Saunders), used to perform as an opera singer in the theater, that they host a singing competition for all the citizens of [subject home town here] to have a shot at participating in, with the incentive of a cash prize for whoever does. After Moon's secretary, Ms. Crawley (Garth Jennings) mixes up the amount of the prize money from $1,000 to $100,000, the theater is swarmed by eager animals all itching for a shot to show their chops and get a shot at the money. Among these animals is a Gorilla named Johnny (Taron Egerton), the son of a crime boss named Big Daddy (Peter Serafinowicz) who doesn't want to follow in his father's criminal footsteps and pursue a career as a singer. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), an overworked mother of twenty-five piglets with an unintentionally neglectful husband who wants to prove that she can still sing. Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk rocker who tries to break away from the shadow of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. Meena (Tori Kelly), a shy elephant with a beautiful voice whose family urges her to step out of her comfort zone. And Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a street-wise mouse who will do anything to get a quick buck (but with an impressive set of pipes to boot). Each of them has their own motivations to perform in the show, and each, including Buster, will have to work harder than they've ever worked and deal with adversity from friends, family, and significant others to achieve their dreams. Can Buster pull them all together to save his theater? Did the movie pretty much answer that question for me in its numerous advertising campaigns?
"Likable," is pretty much the best word to describe this movie and its major strength; All of the characters are pretty freaking likable. In some ways the movie has the same problems that 'Secret Life of Pets' did, the pacing and tone aren't always consistent with one another, like we'll have some funny scenes followed by a serious scene that lasts for what feels like five seconds before moving on to the next funny scene that feels a bit like scene whiplash at times. It's a bit worse here in terms of that whiplash feel because they do have to juggle between at least six different characters and all the plot branches relating to them. Each of their respective plots does tie into the movie in some way and furthers their character which is nice, but still, it can be a little much at times. But what made the whiplash feel a little lessened was how likable everybody was. Even someone like Mike who is an intentionally jerk character who insults everybody else and acts like the cock of the walk, he's a jerk but he's a likable jerk (I guess that's true of MacFarlane himself in some respects, hehehe hmmmmmm) and the rest of the characters are likable in the nice way. Even for what little time is spent on each of these plots and even if I do feel like you could've spent way more time on some of them and fleshed out some really heartwarming or heartbreaking scenes to make us really feel for them when something good or bad happens, at a bare bones level you do find yourself wanting to see these guys succeed. You want to see Meena come out of her shell, you want to see Rosita do well on her performance with the German pig guy (Nick Kroll), you want to see Buster keep his theater going. They're not the best characters ever written or anything but you still want to see all these characters get what they want.
Which, again, only makes me wish they got way more screentime devoted to their wants and what makes them tick than we did. This is a longer movie than I thought it was gonna be, clocking in at 110 minutes, and most of it is devoted to either jokes, slapstick, or singing, with maybe a good thirty percent devoted to character development. And in some of the scenes it works fine, like when Buster reminisces about his dad and his love for theater or when Johnny feels like he's let his dad down or something like that, but I credit that more to how likable the voice acting and the writing for the characters are rather than how it unfolds in the pacing of the movie. The singing and the preparation for the show is obviously gonna be a major part of the movie, but it feels like they could've devoted some time to really let us get to know these characters, to let them have conversations with each other and form these bonds of friendship or kinship to make them feel really well rounded.
It almost feels like the scenes that do focus on that happen offscreen, like when Ash breaks down during rehearsal after she breaks up with her boyfriend, that's actually a pretty sad scene for how natural that breakdown plays out. She gets up onstage, she tries to power through and sing her song but she can't stop the tears from falling out and she eventually can't hold it in, it's very nice. But then we cut away to what another character is doing and we cut back to Rosita commenting on it like they've just gone through this long conversation about what happened and then she's rushed on stage while she tells Ash to go through her purse and try and find some candy to help cheer her up. Little character moments like that or the relationship between Buster and Meena where he tries to get her to be confident in herself, they're nice for what little they focus on them but they would've been sweeter if they'd gotten a chance to blossom a bit more. I don't claim to know this movie like the back of my hand, but I remember a scene from "School of Rock," (that Jack Black movie where he basically kidnaps some grade schoolers and forms a band with them) where he's trying to get the kids into music and assigns roles for each of them, and one girl approaches him after the fact and says she was interested in being a backup vocal. He asks her why she didn't say so before and she admits she was too shy for some personal reason like her voice or her appearance or something like that, but the reason that scene sticks out for me, even for having not seen the movie in years, is because the pacing was just right. They took the time to have those two characters sit down and talk about her insecurities rather than rush through to the next funny joke or musical montage and it was sweet. I wish they would've done the same here more often.
But again, what we do get is much better than what I thought we were gonna get. I'll take bare bones characters that are still likable over unlikable jerkweeds with a tragic backstory as to why they're a jerkweed any day. And for how predictable the movie is overall, it still kind of threw me for a few loops here and there. I wouldn't say there were any major curve balls or anything but they played around with a few tired tropes from these kinds of movies and they had some fun with them too. The big one comes near the end of the second act where there's a bit of a "Liar Revealed" thing about to happen where a character is called out on, what else, a big lie that has more or less carried all the plots of the movie forward, and then all the characters go off and have a sad montage for a few minutes and you think they're all just gonna stay mad at this character before they have to prove they're sorry but no, the rest of the cast actually goes to this character and says, all in all, they forgive them because they legitimately enjoyed the experience so much. Maybe they're a bit too forgiving for how little time is spent on that sad montage but, all right, it's better than going through that tired old plot thread for the millionth time. Even the predictable stuff (again, spoiled in the trailers) like Johnny and his dad where it's all, "Blah, you're not my son," and then later, "That's my son," the payoff of that plot line is still pretty sweet, especially the lengths to which the father goes to tell his son he's proud of him. Even Mike, who receives probably the least character development and stays mostly a jerk, does have a few humbling moments here and there that surprisingly work, so yeah, the plot is predictable and the character arcs are too, but when the voice acting is this good and the chemistry from all the actors is this good too I can be a little too forgiving of it too I guess. I could see this predictability legitimately bothering somebody and I wouldn't say they were wrong, but they did enough right by the characters that I overlooked it.
What also helped the movie was the singing, which was all pretty fantastic. A major part of all the trailers is that montage where all the animals are singing various popular songs (some of which are a little questionably placed in a family film) but a good half of the montage in the actual movie features bits not shown in the trailers (refreshingly) and some of them were pretty funny or pretty enjoyable, and the main cast themselves all do their own singing and they all knock it out of the park. I mean, I'm not a music critic, I don't have a very good ear to tell you what makes a good singer or bad one (you're reading from a guy who liked Russel Crowe in "Les Miserables" for the most part), but I don't think any one of the cast is gonna sound grating to a majority of people. I mean some of the cast like Tori Kelly or Reese Whitherspoon have shown their chops before (Kelly being a professional singer even) so it wasn't a huge surprise they were so good, but then you had people like Taron Egerton and Scarlett Johansson who I didn't know could sing this good, I mean carry notes, do a bit of vocal variety in one song, it's fantastic. A standout for me is Seth MacFarlane who, if you're familiar with his work, you know can sing pretty well, and even sing well as any one of his characters, but here he shows how dang good of a classical 20s, Frank Sinatra performer he can be and even if you don't like him, which is understandable, you have to admit he has a byyyootiful voice and it's clear they didn't just hire him to do a funny voice or add some incentive for adults to go see it (he's actually pretty tame in this movie compared to some other jokes or characters, surprisingly).
The humor in this movie overall is all right. Not "haha" funny a majority of the time due to many of the great one-liners spent on the trailers and the general pacing but with plenty of chuckles and funny visual gags here and there. Like the very first play Buster sees that inspires his love of the theater is called "Epiphany," that's a clever gag, or how Rosita is able to set up this Rube Goldberg Device that somehow knows exactly what her kids and husband are gonna do and say during the morning prep so she can go to rehearsal that's both funny and pretty freaking awesome on her part. Plus, in keeping up with the tradition of Illumination's movies I guess, there's a few dark jokes in the movie here and there that got a huge laugh out of me. Like when a character steps on his snail friend and he thinks he's dead, that got the biggest laugh out of me in the movie, why do I laugh at all the really dark jokes in these movies?! Then you have a really weird scene where Buster and Eddie try to earn a few bucks by doing a car wash and use their own bodies to wash the cars while "Nessun Dorma" plays inspiringly that comes so far out of left field I couldn't help but laugh at it. It's not like the movie fails as a comedy, I just wish they hadn't blown so many of their jokes and punchlines in the advertising.
So yeah, is this a movie I'd put on a "Best of 2016" (that sentence feels wrong in any context) list? No, it's flawed, the pacing is too fast at times and they don't focus as much on the characters as they should, but at the same time they focus on the characters just enough so that they aren't buried in the plots of the movie or the jokes or songs or anything else. The scales are a little tipped against their favor, but not enough that I got nothing from them. I did really like all these characters, and I liked the songs, and I liked the animation and the world that wasn't as well thought out as something like "Zootopia" in terms of how all these animals coexist with each other, and you're certainly not gonna find any deeper commentary in the film regarding social issues but that's not the kind of movie this was trying to be. It's a fun ensemble, jukebox musical-esque romp that doesn't take itself too seriously but just seriously enough that you feel something for the characters. Maybe not much, but just enough for me to forgive the movie for its shortcomings and enjoy myself up until the credits rolled. If you're interested or you have kids, I think you'll find some fun in this movie too. Maybe from the songs, maybe from the characters or jokes, maybe you'll think the whole thing is pretty great for all I know. Even if you're skeptical like I kind of was, you may just find your feet tapping to some of the songs before the movie ends. Not sure if that's enough to sell a movie but it's a lot more than I was expecting to say the least.
But seriously, I'm legit considering buying the soundtrack on iTunes or something, these songs are too catchy, THEY WON'T GO AWAY, SAVE MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
Merry Christmas! :D
It's often said that video game adaptations of movies are the lowest hanging fruit for Hollywood. Well, no one says that word for word, but that's pretty much the go-to reaction when one of these are announced. Yes, to the cynical mind these movies are nothing more than a quick attempt at a cash grab meant to trick people who like a popular game series into running over each other to the movies to see a cheaper knock off they could enjoy for quadruple the hours actually playing the game. But not all video game movies are inherently bad. Some are... okay. We've yet to find one that's objectively good but some are... okay. And for some reason or another, this year saw a pretty decent amount of video game adaptations on the big screen. "Ratchet & Clank," "WarCraft," a movie meant to serve as a sort of interquel for "Final Fantasy XV" and we end it here with the movie adaptation of the ever popular "Assassin's Creed" franchise from Ubisoft. For better or worse, almost every year since 2007 has seen at least one release of an "Assassin's Creed" video game and I have to admit, of all the video game movies you could make, this one actually does have merit as a pretty decent movie idea. The general premise of the "Assassin's Creed" series, in case you didn't know, is a person using a machine known as the Animus to travel back in time and look at the memories of any given ancestor they may have (with some rules as to when exactly they can look at those memories and for what period of time they can through some needlessly complicated reasons they never fully explained very well). And the games themselves have covered a wide variety of eras from Renaissance Italy to the Golden Age of Piracy, the American and French Revolutions, among others. These games are rife with historical figures and it plays around with them and the time periods in ways that, even if you don't like the series, you have to admit are pretty clever most of the time. So yeah, I could see this series adapting pretty well to movies if they handled it the right way. And did they handle it the right way? ...No. No they didn't.
Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a criminal arrested for murder, is set to be executed October 21st, 2016 by the state. However, his death is merely a ruse and he later wakes up in an Abstergo building in Madrid. He is informed by Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) that Abstergo had his death faked so that they could use him for their Animus experiments in order to find an object from a secret civilization lost in the sands of time; The Apple of Eden. Believed to be the fruit that bore men's original sin, the Apple in this universe is one of many advanced technological devices by Those Who Came Before, capable of influencing the mind so that its wielder can gain control over large groups of people and has been used by many of histories greatest leaders. One of the many apples Abstergo seeks was last seen in the Spanish Inquisition, with Callum's ancestor Aguilar de Nerha (Fassbender), who belonged to an ancient order known as the Assassins. Callum is forced to go into the Animus to relive the memories of Aguilar and the events that led to him finding the Apple before Torquemada (Javier Gutiérrez) and the Templar Order (which would later become Abstergo) can. But Callum is not the only tenant in Abstergo to have Assassin roots, and many urge him to not go into the Animus and give the location of the Apple away, especially not when Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) CEO of Abstergo Industries and one of the top members of the Templar Order underneath only the Elders, is personally overseeing the project. Will Callum heed the words of the Assassins, or will the Templars achieve their goal of control and drain the free will from humanity?
Now, that all sounds cool right? That trailer looked pretty rad? Yeah, it should! The "Assassin's Creed" games are all about that mixture of sci-fi and historical fiction that is the basis for the plot of this movie. You'd think with a setting like the Spanish Inquisition and some of the actors in this movie like Fassbender this would be a recipe for success. But here's the major thing wrong with this movie that I figured out shortly after the first major action scene set in the past. And I can only sum it up with one terrible word when describing a movie; BORING.
I have never been more bored watching a video game adaptation than I was watching this movie, and I had no right to be for this because this is a series I actually like! Sure the past few video game movies I've reviewed I've had some connection to them, like "Ratchet & Clank" I played as an adult and I thought the movie was seriously flawed pacing and character wise but overall harmless, and "WarCraft" I didn't enjoy particularly for how little the characters apart from the Orcs got any development or how it rushed through its plot without really taking the time to breath or even explain anything, but I do give it credit that I was never completely bored watching it, there was always something at least visually interesting going on. But this movie... IT'S SO BORING!!! And it's not like the games' stories were always masterpieces or the characters always well fleshed out, but they were never boring! Heck, even the first game, which is the weakest one of the lot, at least with that and the repetitive side missions and junk you still had the present day plot line that kickstarted this craziness and introduced you to the whole Templar vs. Assassin conflict and you had real life historical cameos from Richard the Lionheart and other Crusade figures to give you something! This... I almost forgot that Torquemada was even onscreen half the time, they barely do anything with his character or any other historical character that might show up in this movie. Like... HISTORY ISN'T BORING HOW DO YOU MAKE HISTORY BORING, okay, calm down.
I guess the major reason the movie bored me, not just for how little they actually do anything with the historical time period or characters, is that the characters as a whole in this movie are... nothing. I knew nothing about any of them by the time the movie was done and I had no incentive to care about any of them while the movie was going on. All you get are bare bones notes about them like Cal is a criminal with daddy issues, Sophia is a doctor who's more driven by her work than actually being a Templar, her dad is obsessed with trying to treat violence like it's a disease and wipe it from humanity's mind (which is highly hypocritical when you get right down to the methods the Templars use but I'll elaborate more on that later) and the other Assassin characters, past and present, that do show up are no better than fodder. If they live or die, you don't care. You don't care about any of them because the movie gives you no reason to care. Even with the first game that had the least interesting characters in the whole series, Altair still went through a bare bones character arc! He was a jerk, he became less of a jerk by the time the game was done, bam, points for trying, take the walk to first base and see you when you hit a home run with Ezio in the sequel. With Cal and especially with his ancestor... what was the arc here? Yes, Cal does go through some semblance of an arc I guess but it doesn't feel genuine for how little I know about him and how little he's allowed to have any charm or personality. Fassbender is a good actor, there's no denying that, and he does have natural charm in the right setting. You might as well have replaced both his characters in this movie with a wooden board and it'd have just the same amount of impact (and a wooden board as the protagonist might at least give you something other than the bland, white, male protagonist you see in every bland action movie). I don't know if they weren't allowed to improvise or add any input to their characters or if they just didn't care but Cal and Aguilar both have no chemistry with anybody and no defining personality traits that can help them stand out from the other protagonists in the series like Ezio or Connor (yes, I like Connor, fight me).
Everybody else in this movie is pretty bland too, with not one performance sticking out over the rest. And it's a shame because this is a good ensemble cast. I mean, Jeremy Irons is born to play villains like Rikkin, the guys who hide out in the shadows and scheme evil plans and all that noise, and Rikkin even showed up for five seconds in the first game, couldn't you have modeled some of his personality off of that? I mean it's not a lot of personality but at least it's a building block! Heck, you even got Brendan Gleeson, the guy who practically chewed up all the scenery in the Harry Potter movies, and you give him as boring a role as any other actor in this movie! Why couldn't he be one of the villains? Why couldn't you have cast him as an eccentric old Assassin mentor or something? In fact, why did you even cast Fassbender as a SPANISH GUY!!! I mean, yeah, it's Michael Fassbender, you want to use him as much as you can for his name cred, and to be fair they do have an excuse that the Animus sort of models the ancestor based on the person viewing the memory but... come on, you could've tried to find a Spanish actor who looked like Fassbender at least!
All right, I'm being too negative, what's some good stuff about the movie? Well, as much as it fails to capture the spirit of the writing and the fun of some of the games, especially in the lack of any personality for its characters, the general tone and style is pretty similar to the games at least. There's a lot of practical effects and free running that emulates the anachronistic free running that helped to make the games so popular. And there are some nods to the games here and there, even referencing some pretty obscure one time characters, that major fans will probably enjoy catching (I didn't catch a whole lot myself, but I'm not a major-major fan and I was trying hard not to fall asleep). I also appreciate the lengths they went to replicate the famous leap of faith that's a staple of every game and do it without CGI. That long jump you see in the movie where Aguilar is free-falling from over a hundred feet, that's real, and it's the longest free-falling stunt to date. So it's clear the crew went to great lengths to try and replicate as much from the games as they could and that's nice at least. It's also a very well shot movie, at least in terms of location shots and non-action scenes, that's neat to look at. The director, Justin Kurzel, mostly had a run of smaller budget films before making this so he'd probably know more about making it look pretty than other directors (or maybe he just had a good cinematographer or light crew, who knows).
But even with how nice the movie is shot it has this orangeish blue tint to it that all the generic action movies have (Michael Bay) that doesn't feel pretty to look at, even if the shot itself is pretty. When you're looking at the ruined city in Spain and getting an aerial overview it doesn't feel grandiose, you're just looking at a bunch of orange-brown, that's not pretty, where's the natural color? The action scenes are also pretty sloppily edited, doing that tired old rapid cut style popularized by much better action movies in the early 2000s that has been poorly replicated ever since. It also doesn't help that every scene set in the past is some sort of set piece that really gets old after a while. It becomes formulaic where you don't want the audience to see where you're going with it, imagine if "Mad Max: Fury Road" had done something similar where every action scene was generally the same over and over at ten minute intervals and it took little to no breaks to make the action stand out all the more.
The writing of this movie too is just... it's bad. I'm sorry, movies aren't easy to write but... it's bad. When they talk about their major goal being about eradicating violence it doesn't sound genuine at all, it sounds like an after school special starring the Templars. The video games go into a bit more detail as to the goals of the Templars and how they strive for order and peace, sort of similar to the Assassins' major goal but with different means to the end (a lot of these similarity themes being explored in "Assassin's Creed III," a.k.a. the most underrated game in the series, FIGHT ME), and it's a lot more compelling there than it is here. Here it feels like they took only the rough draft of those existential conflicts and were like, "Duh, violence is bayad," and bam, instant villain motivation to make you question whether or not they're really villains. That's not thought provoking, it's just lazy, and you can't expect to garner sympathy towards a villain on a flimsy excuse like that alone (the games themselves don't often have the best lineup of villains either, but at least they're memorable overall). Plus it feels more like this is the kind of movie that they tried to write with a general audience in mind but might only end up being enjoyed by fans for how it ended up being written. But even then I don't know how fans themselves are reacting to the movie, all I have is my own opinion on it and I really don't know who would end up enjoying this movie because of it. It's confusing if you don't know the series, it's still confusing in some areas if you do, it's like they were trying to satisfy everybody but just ended up confusing them instead.
I don't know, it's not like this is a terrible movie that inspired a great deal of rage in me like last year's "Pan" or something like "Batman and Robin" which gets absolutely nothing right about the mythos they were trying to represent. There is heart in this movie, there is an effort to try and appease the fans while keeping it open ended enough for a general audience to walk in with a clean slate, and I appreciate that. But they often say (and this is actually a saying) that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And if in this case Hell represents a confusing and not very fleshed out movie with bland characters, poor action scenes and a plot line I couldn't care less about, then it's an apt saying to use. I really don't know if you'll like this movie even if you're a huge fan of the series but... eeeeeeeeeh I guess there's no harm in seeing it if you really want to? Maybe catch a matinee or wait for it to hit Red Box or something. As for my personal recommendation, just play one of the games (anything after the first one), you'll get way more substance and way more creativity from one of those. Maybe it's the thought that counts, but sometimes the thought alone just isn't enough to save shoddy execution.
That "Sly Cooper" movie just keeps getting darker and darker expectations in my mind...
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
There's been numerous parts of the expanded Star Wars mythos that have been adapted in other media before. Be they the books, comic books or video games, you name one bit of backstory, one "what if" scenario about any of these movies, and there's probably some story for it somewhere. One of these numerous stories is how exactly the Rebels got the plans for the Death Star before the events of 'A New Hope.' And really, you'd think people wouldn't really care about how they got it, point is they got it and all the crap that happens in the first movie happened, end of story. But still, it's fun to speculate, and it was neat to see how certain games or stories handled it. But since Disney took over the franchise and effectively hit the reset button on everything that happened before or after the six movies plus the 'Clone Wars' TV series, the slate of how the Rebels got the plans was wiped clean as well, leaving a spot for another story in the Star Wars universe to be told. Whether you consider it a cash grab or not, Disney has announced several "filler" movies between the remaining two Sequel Trilogy films set to release in 2017 and 2019 respectively. These include a Han Solo prequel, a proposed Boba Fett interquel, and this film, "Rogue One," telling, at last, a definitive canon version of how the plans for the Death Star ended up in the fateful hands of Princess Leia. And since some people were left feeling cold about 'The Force Awakens' last year, how does this movie compare? Well, whether you like it more or less than Disney's previous offering in a new era of Star Wars, I'd say the majority of fans can agree, as far as side stories unrelated to the Skywalkers and all their drama go, this one is pretty freaking solid.
The Rebel Alliance have intercepted Imperial plans for a secret super weapon that, when fully armed, will have the power to destroy entire planets. This weapon holds special meaning to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) due to the fact that her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) designed it by Imperial order, under the watch of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Empire. Jyn joins forces with Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and his stolen Imperial Droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who are secretly under order to kill Galen so that the plans for the Death Star may not be replicated. Their journey to find Jyn's father takes them across several Imperial controlled planets, where they encounter other people fighting for the Rebellion, including a defected pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a blind believer of the Force named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his friend/bodyguard Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). The ragtag group of unlikely Rebels contend with other forces outside the Empire, including the fanatic Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), and even the Rebel Alliance themselves when they prove reluctant to go after the plans for the Death Star due to imposing odds. Will this band of rogues come together to bring hope to the Rebellion and the galaxy at large? Will any of them survive the events of this prequel to the original that features no mention of any of them? Will there be weird but kinda cool cameos of past Star Wars characters whose actors have long been dead?!! ...All right I'm being mean, let's cut to the chase.
Yes, it's pretty obvious from the get-go how this movie will go. You know that either some or all of these characters aren't gonna make it to the end due to the nature of the plot and the plots that follow it, and that can be a major crutch for prequel stories when the writing or acting isn't completely perfect to break the illusion that everything is pre-ordained to the audience. That was a problem many people had with the Prequel Trilogy, where the plots or characters weren't enough to make them forget what was going to happen and how much better it was done before (I personally have a soft spot for the Prequels, but I'm not gonna defend everything they did). And there was a danger that this movie could repeat the same mistakes that the Prequels did. Over-reliance on nostalgia for Star Wars, flat characters, the works. Thankfully, while I wouldn't say it's flawless, this movie continues the strong streak that Disney started with 'The Force Awakens' (at least in my opinion) and shows that even these filler movies between the stuff we actually want to see can be very well made and very well told, immersing you into more of the world of Star Wars and making you eager to see more expanded parts of it in the future.
A major strength and yet somewhat flaw of the movie is the main cast, mainly the Rogue One part of it. There was something almost akin to an RPG as to how this team meets up and the roles they play. Jyn the Thief, Cassian the Fighter, Chirrut the Mage, so on and so forth, and seeing them play off each other is half the fun of the movie, the same as it was in the original films and 'The Force Awakens.' Each character has the basis of something great, and the acting is superb from everyone. My standout favorites have to be the Droid, K-2SO, and the Force-sensitive blind man Chirrut, who practically stole the show for me amidst a group of other likable and suave actors. K-2 is pretty much the opposite of C-3PO, snarky and unafraid to get his hands dirty or speak his true mind. His dry sense of humor and the way he plays off Jyn and the others made for some of the movie's best quips and jokes, while Chirrut was something on the other side of that spectrum. He had some funny lines here and there too, but overall he represents more of the Jedi mindset in an otherwise Jedi-less film. And, honestly, you take a blind character and you make them kick all sorts of butt, that's an automatic A+ from me. All the best characters are like that, Daredevil from Marvel, Toph from "Avatar: The Last Airbender," and now we finally have someone from Star Wars with that same distinction (or maybe there was one already in the expanded stuff or TV show, I dunno I'm not up to date with all of that). The cast itself is the most diverse of all the Star Wars films yet, with another female lead (still white, but baby steps) and plenty of Asian, Middle-Eastern or Spanish actors to fill out the rest of the gang, offering a chance for any kid to look up at the screen and see themselves in this fantastical story that matters a lot more than you'd guess (especially recently).
However, while the diversity is great and the characters at their base are pretty solid, I will admit I wouldn't put them on the same pedigree as the cast of the Original Trilogy or the new cast of 'Force Awakens.' Mainly because there aren't a lot of moments outside the plot for the characters to have little moments to interact with each other. Much of the movie is focused on getting to the next plot point, and to its credit it never feels sluggish or too fast in its pacing because of that, but at the same time we could've had some bonding moments where Jyn reminisces about her father to one of her cohorts or one of them reminisces about something else or talks about something else concerning the Force or anything like that, and it could've at least fleshed the characters out to where I could remember their names offhand rather than having to look up a reference (it doesn't help that the naming for some of these characters in the Star Wars film is needlessly complicated half the time). It's not like the characters themselves aren't memorable or even good, even if they could've used a bit more grounding that doesn't always mean they're bad, it just means a little bit was lacking to make them truly stand out against other characters from the franchise, that's all.
There's also two ways you could take the general way the movie plays out. At least from the perspective of my sister and my cousin, they said that they felt like the movie's pacing was a bit too slow and the action pretty bare apart from the climax, where they felt the movie truly reached its greatness. As for me, I'm kinda the opposite in that regard. Overall, I think the pacing and the way the plot played out was some of the best since the first "Star Wars" or 'Empire.' The director, Gareth Edwards (responsible for 2014's "Godzilla" reboot which I liked more than others probably for the same reasons I liked this movie's plot so much) stated that this movie was very much like a War film. Where the focus wasn't so much on the battles themselves but on the strategy and the subterfuge in-between them. That was a major part of what made this film so refreshing as a side story and what helped set it apart from the other seven films in the main lineup. There are action scenes spruced within the movie at several places to keep audience interest going throughout, but it's definitely not as bombastic or grandiose as the previous Star Wars films before it, up until the last thirty minutes or so which are great but I felt was a little too long at places? I dunno, I feel like maybe a few scenes could've been trimmed together or cut a little quicker to keep the end from feeling a bit longer than I would've liked, especially when the climax to 'Force Awakens' flowed pretty naturally (apart from the generic space battle that was more or less rectified here). But the movie does end with a pretty effective bang, especially for who provides said bang (and no, I'm not talking about the Death Star) and what massive fan service it is (no, I'm not talking about that kind).
There are several moments of fan service laced throughout the movie that could feel a bit too much at times if it were done poorly, but there's a nice balance between it and the new stuff with the new characters that it never feels too blatant or forced (is that a pun, no it's not, shut up). Some of the more obvious ones come from some characters, main or side, that appear in other Star Wars films, but every time they showed up they worked for me, including the return of a character from the Prequels that I felt was a welcome addition and a nice nod to those films to show that Disney isn't totally forsaking them. Some of the weirder ones come from characters that appear in 'A New Hope' that, for reasons either due to age of current actors or lack of existence from others, had to be done in almost complete CGI. The most obvious example of this is the (pleasant surprise) return of Grand Moff Tarkin, Peter Cushing's devious villain from 'Hope.' In a lot of ways how they handle his scenes are incredible for how seamless they replicate him as he appeared in the original film and for how whoever did the voice for him does a spot on impression of Cushing, but in other ways it's a little... off. Anytime you completely CGI a human character it's gonna feel a little off, that's the uncanny valley at work. There's something about the way a CGI character moves and talks that never completely looks genuine to the human eye, and you can almost always tell when something is CGI because of that, even if it should be seamless in execution. And yeah, Moff is somewhere in that uncanny valley in every scene he's in. Not to something like 'Polar Express' levels but just a wee bit not right. But it also doesn't come off as disrespectful to the late Cushing or needless as a cameo, and it's just plain cool to see him in a new movie, even if it's as a CGI replica.
The rest of the effects do what 'Force Awakens' did, they blend CGI with as much practical effects as they can for a great mix that shows the strengths of both when they're married and one isn't cast aside in favor of the other. And in some respects, where the Tarkin example was blatant, other CGI creations I couldn't tell if they were CGI or not. I'm convinced that K-2 was done partly as a practical Droid and if not he's a creation on par with something like Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" for how realistic he looks and how seamless he blends with the other characters. The cinematography of this movie is gorgeous too, with every other shot giving you the scope of what the Rebels are up against and how small and helpless they seem compared to the Empire.
Again, I wouldn't call this a perfect movie or a movie that will absolutely please all fans of Star Wars, but I think there's plenty there to enjoy no matter where you stand with the series. There were a number of times when I got just as excited when a certain character or certain scene appeared as I did opening night of 'Force Awakens' and there's a lot I appreciate about the pacing and story for me to recommend it on that alone. And maybe if 'The Force Awakens' wasn't completely to your liking for being too similar to 'A New Hope,' maybe this film can give you the reassurance you need that Disney can create a really solid original story based off this world and these characters. Bottom line, get your butt to the movie theater and see for yourself whether this movie is strong with the Force or too far gone in the Dark Side of Disney's search for more milk to drain from one of their many cash cows. Disney's pretty much gonna take over the world at this point, aren't they?
The sad thing about animation is that, odds are, the general audience doesn't pay attention to who's directing them. Sure you have animators like John Lasseter or Brad Bird who are relatively well known for their movies and other titles, but if you asked someone on the street who it was that directed classics like "Beauty and the Beast," or "Shrek" or something of the like you'd probably stump a lot of people. I'm not acting all high and mighty either, I won't pretend I know every name of every director of animated movies, all I'm saying is it's a bit of shame they're not put at the same pedigree as live action directors. But, to those nerds who do the research and figure out those things, there are a few directors and animators you'll recognize by name. Two such people are John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo behind Disney's greatest successes from "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "The Princess and the Frog" (not exactly a huge financial success, but it did kickstart this second renaissance as it were so it's something) and some under looked films like "Treasure Planet" and "The Great Mouse Detective." It's probably not exaggerating to say these two have done a lot for Disney and more often than not when they're at the helm of a Disney movie you won't be steered wrong. And after the release of 'Princess and the Frog' and their animated adaptation of the Discworld book "Mort" fell through (I only bring that up for what a LOSS that was, read the book, you'll understand why) they turned their attention to one of three ideas they pitched to Disney, the film you're reading about right now, "Moana," Disney Animation's second release of 2016. It's also not an exaggeration to say that Disney has been doing really well for themselves this year, churning out more major successes than ever and three of their released films in three of their major studios have all grossed over one billion at the box office ('Civil War,' "Finding Dory," and "Zootopia" from highest to lowest). That is... impressive, to say the least. So there was a part of me that was worried how well this film would fare, even though it looked beautiful and there were a lot of promising things about it. Would this be another great success in a long line of them, or would it falter a bit like some of their other, less notable films? Thankfully, on Thanksgiving no less (obvious American), I can happily put those fears to bed, Disney's done it again, "Moana" is just as refreshing and brilliant as "Zootopia" before it, and well on its way to being a modern classic.
Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is brought up by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) to replace him one day, but the girl finds herself drawn to the sea, a passion shared and encouraged by her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House). When Moana starts to let her drive of the sea go in favor of her duties as future chief, their island of Motuni begins to experience infertile crops and disappeared fish. Gramma Tala tells Moana that the cause of the island's degradation stems from the lava monster Te Ka, who guards the island of Te Fiti, Goddess of life, and whose heart was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Moana embarks on a quest to find Maui and get her to guide him to Te Fiti to put the heart, a green pounamu stone, back where it belongs, contending with a host of monsters ranging from the tiny Kakamora to the narcissistic coconut crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), as well as dealing with Maui's initial reluctance to help her. Can they work together and restore life to the sea and islands, or will they become victims of Te Ka and his carnage?
I think at this point it's easier to point out the animated movies that don't have a general "reluctant partners on a road trip" premise. Not that I can really blame people for going with a plot like that, it offers a lot of creativity from the experiences the characters have and allows for some character fleshing while they're traveling. Besides, it's not so much how often a plot is repeated, it's how they use it and whether or not there's still some creativity and other great qualities to the movie as a whole. And, yeah, to make a long story short there is a lot of both in this movie. The voice acting, the animation, the songs, everything in this movie is about as classic Disney as you can get, especially from two of the guys who have come to define what we call "classic Disney" in the past twenty years.
In fact the only real complaint I can think of is that the first act is maybe a little too classic Disney? It's still a good first act and it gets you excited for the rest of the movie, but there are the typical clichés that do come with it. Our protagonist wants adventure in the great wide somewhere and has an overprotective father in charge who denies her the opportunities for adventure she craves, and there's even two cute lil animal sidekicks that follow her around as she does her thing and sings her "I Want" song. Again, it's not bad, but as you're watching it you more or less start to associate these tropes with the other Disney movies you've seen and the other protagonists like Ariel or Belle who have sung this song and done this thing with their dads before. Once Moana discovers the history of her people and goes off to find Maui the plot does pick up, even for the familiar buddy-road trip story, and the movie becomes a lot of fun.
A majority of that fun does come from Maui, an intentionally obnoxious trickster who revels in in messing with Moana and being a general nuisance to everyone who doesn't fit in with his own needs. His rapport with Moana, and the voice acting between Dwayne Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho, make for some of the funniest jokes in the movie and they play off each other fantastically. Even the unexpected inclusion of Moana's pet rooster Heihei (Alan Tudyk) who doesn't contribute anything to the movie in the grand scheme of things is made fun by how the two of them interact with him. Watching them go through their journey and learn more about themselves and each other should be cliché but the writing and the performances make them the most fun duo Disney has put out since... well, "Zootopia" (like I said, Disney's had a good year).
The story is one thing, but the technical side of the movie is fantastic too. I swear to all things holy, Disney is only getting prettier and prettier with each new movie they release and it's time for my self-fulfilling prophecy I made in my review of "Zootopia" to come true, this is the prettiest one yet. The ocean, the islands, the characters themselves and how realistically their hair and clothes react to being wet and other elements of the environment, it's one of the most gorgeous movies you can have the pleasure of watching this year. There's even little snippets of hand drawn animation in the form of Maui's tattoos that interact with him and Moana throughout the movie that's a ton of fun. The standouts are probably Tamatoa and the scene he features in and the lava monster Te Ka, the latter of which reminded me a lot of the Firebird from "Fantastia 2000" for how impressive it looked.
Also on a less technical or critical side, I have to mention how it's just plain nice to have a movie made entirely of Polynesian characters and Polynesian mythology and traditions. Partly because there are so few films, animated films especially, with an emphasis on Polynesian culture, and partly because I know so little about them personally. Watching this movie was pretty much the equivalent of watching "The Secret of Kells" or "Song of the Sea" from the other side of the pond in Ireland, it makes me want to know more about this culture and the mythos to it. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt that way after seeing it, and that's great! Oftentimes it's movies like this, that will reach a wide audience around the world, that helps us to understand cultures like this and make us want to know more about them and that's important to better understanding the world as a whole.
Spiel aside, the movie is just plain good. There's some stuff you can nitpick about it from the plot or characters here and there, but as a whole I think it's an incredibly solid movie. The music itself is right up there with the songs from "Frozen," I dare say better as a whole even for how drenched in the culture they are and the talent that went into all of them from Opetai Foa'i of the musical group Te Vaka and Lin-Manuel Miranda, fresh off his runaway Broadway phenomenon, "Hamilton" (and if you're familiar with that, which what are you waiting for if you're not, you'll recognize his distinctive thumbprint on most of the songs). All in all it's another success from Disney Animation and Disney's track record for 2016 as a whole. I can think of no better movie for the entire family to see for the Thanksgiving weekend (again, American) or any coming weekend as long as it's out in theaters across the nation and across the world. Just go see it already, you'll thank me for it later. And now there's a perfect song to express my welcome for it!
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Unless you lived it or were surrounded by people impacted by it, it's probably impossible to understand how the world got swept up into Pottermania for much of the late '90s through the first decade of the new millennia. It pretty much was to my generation what "Star Wars" was to people in the '70s, a familiar story of a seemingly average hero pulled into something much greater than he could ever have imagined, an entire world of magic and subterfuge and more. To say that the books were popular is an understatement, they were a freaking movement. Inspiring a generation of young readers and turning the series into not only the best-selling books worldwide, but also the second highest grossing film series of all time (behind Marvel and not adjusting for inflation) and spawning video games, a website dedicated to the backstory and mythos of the world, and even a flipping theme park. All this from the imagination of a desperate writer trying to get by in a difficult time. And after a quiet couple of years where it seemed the series had been put to bed, the world has been thrust into Pottermania yet again with two major releases in the series this year; The first being a continuation stage production called "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" (the script of which is available in book stores worldwide) and the release of the first in a planned five movie series called "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" (obviously), based off a supplementary book written by author J.K. Rowling for charity offering insight to some of the magical creatures in the Wizarding World. It's a unique movie for several reasons; Being based off the book's fictional author, Newt Scamander, taking place at least seventy years before the events of the seven Harry Potter stories, and taking place in New York City, introducing the American Magical World for the first time. On top of that it's the first screenplay that Rowling herself has ever written, and often times when a writer writes a script for a movie things can get a little dicey, considering that books and films are very different mediums with very different styles of storytelling. So, could they pull it off, could they release a movie in the Wizarding World removed from most of the familiar elements that drew so many fans into it? Well, I can't speak for everybody but as for me, my thoughts are pretty much summed up by the last lines of this trailer.
Approximately sixty years before the Boy Who Lived made his mark in history, magical creature enthusiast, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) travels to New York City with a case containing a sample of the beasts he's studied. However, one of his more mischievous creatures breaks loose from the case and causes a stir at a No-Maj (non magical folk) bank, sweeping up aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger) in the process. He also attracts ex-Auror Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who tries to turn him in to the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), but is thwarted by her peers, among them the President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), not taking her seriously. Through a mishap, Kowalski ends up taking Newt's case as his own, releasing a few of the beasts inside it to run a muck in New York, all while witches and wizards are being pursued by a group called the Second-Salemers, intent on murdering any magical people they find, and the threat of exposure from notable wizard terrorist Gellert Grindelwald looms over their heads. Can Newt track down all his creatures before the Wizarding World is exposed, or worse, gets arrested? Well, there's four more movies planned after this so you tell me.
Much like many things in my life, this blog doesn't reflect how much I LOOOOOVE Harry Potter. I wouldn't put myself on the same level as massive Potter-heads who can recite lines from the book by heart or know random facts about the history off the top of their heads, but ever since I saw the first movie when my sister got in on VHS for her birthday back in 2002, I've been entranced (bum bum tish) by this series and have been ever since. Having grown up with more the movies than the books (even though I have read all of them), I would unashamedly put them on the same level as something like "The Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars" if nothing else just for how much they've impacted my love of film as an entire medium, and for how much creativity and charm (these puns just write themselves and I hate it) they all have. Recently, in anticipation of this movie, they re-released all eight Potter films in IMAX and you can bet I was there watching all sixteen-plus hours of that and reliving my childhood like there was no tomorrow. I love it, I can't say any more than that. There's not a bad movie in the bunch for me (even if some parts do disappoint, as with any series) and I could easily watch all eight again any time.
Nostalgia and love for the old series is one thing, but what did I think of this movie's announcement and what do I think of it having seen it? Well, first off, I was intrigued by the idea alone when it first came to fruition. Expanding on a background history character as well as expanding on the mythos of the Wizarding World at large sounded like a major plus to me, and after the high that the second 'Deathly Hallows' film left us on, I was more than willing to step back into the Wizarding World again, even if the setting would be entirely removed from the status quo. And that's part of what made me enjoy this movie so much, the fact that it is so different from the status quo.
The main Harry Potter books and films follow a pretty simple formula; Harry goes to Hogwarts, there's a mystery he uncovers during the year, he spends that school year trying to sort out said mystery, some weeks before said year ends the mystery gets solved. Rinse and repeat for five books with a refreshing mix up in the last one. That's not to say the formula was bad, each story managed to be as engrossing in its mysteries and action as the last, but it is nice to have a story separated from that formula in the form of 'Beasts' or even in 'The Cursed Child' (which could take up a whole review in and of itself but I won't, I liked it despite its flaws, suffice to say). Not only do we get a setting removed from Hogwarts or the British Wizarding World, we also get different perspectives from multiple characters where the main series rarely ever broke away from Harry's point of view. This gives us more insight not only as to what Newt's up to but what someone like Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) or a boy named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in the Second-Salemers. You get a bit more plot and subplots from this that come together in the end in a bit more satisfying way than just Harry figuring it all out and us learning it when he does. Sometimes it's nice to be the omniscient audience rather than a fly on a certain character.
However this does lead me to my only major criticism of the movie; it feels not enough about the plot was explained and not enough concerning the B-story was expanded upon. The major drive of the movie is Newt trying to recollect his creatures before they're discovered or MACUSA can get their hands on them and exterminate them, and that part is great, but we also get a side story concerning a powerful force that Graves is trying to find with Credence's help (not entirely a spoiler, the trailers showed you that much) and I give credit to Rowling for tying that back to the main story so well in the third act, but it also feels like not a lot was explained to give the reveal of what the powerful force is or who's really behind everything the extra oomph it deserved. The reveal was shocking, yes, I never would've expected it, but it's not something like the meek Professor Quirrell being behind everything in 'Sorcerer's Stone' ("Philosopher's" everywhere else in the world cuz America is dumb) or Peter Pettigrew was a pet rat surprising for how little we really know about the backstory behind the twists. It's hard to explain in a review that doesn't spoil anything (except for the two I just mentioned but both those books and movies are well over a decade old now, get reading/watching) but I don't think a whole lot of people really understood the twists completely either? You'd just have to see for yourself if you can make sense of it. The most I can say is it feels like stuff that's meant to be explained for a later movie, and characters like Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and his son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) feel like they're meant to be expanded on in a later movie too. It makes their presence in this one feel fodder because of it more than anything else.
But that's not to say the story isn't as engaging as the others in the series have been. Even as I was picking apart a few holes here and there I was still very much along for the ride and enthralled by a lot of the set pieces concerning the beasts and the small duels between various wizards. A lot of the funnier moments in the film come from Newt's coaxing of his escaped creatures and Jacob struggling to keep up with him (a standout scene being the attempted recapture of an Erumpent in Central Park). I found myself really liking the characters as well, with the heart of the movie coming from how dedicated Newt is to protecting his creatures and preserving them from extinction. The best scene in the whole movie comes when Newt takes Jacob inside his case and we get a view of the creatures Newt's been collecting and it is glorious. All the creatures are obviously CGI, but they're so unique and so surprisingly gentle for their intimidating stature and appearance that you can't help but immediately understand where Newt is coming from in his drive to protect them. The relationship the two have with Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is also a ton of fun, with Queenie's skill for mind-reading and Jacob's doe-eyed wonderment at everything he sees in the magical world making for great comic relief.
And by golly, it's just great to be in this setting again. A magical world where everything seems possible and the sky's the limit in terms of its inhabitants, man or beast. That's what I've missed most from the Harry Potter world and it's great to get a fresh take on it after so many years (well, five, but that's a long time to wait comparatively speaking). Since this series is called 'Fantastic Beasts' and there's a plethora of others from the book that they have yet to explore (I just know those awful Acromantulas are gonna show up again at some point, eugh), from numerous other countries and places around the world, it's great to imagine where this series can go in the future and how much they can cram into the next four films. Sure this movie's not entirely perfect, the cramming making the B-story feel a bit too compressed for my liking and the noticeable lack of diversity in the majority cast (especially for 1920's New York (but hey, Black female President, already more advanced than the regular No-Maj America)), but I feel like the main plot, characters and spectacle from the titular beasts make up for it, as well as the promise of much more to come from familiar plot points in the main series concerning Grindelwald and Dumbledore's relationship. I don't know where they're going with this series, but you can bet I'm ready and willing to go wherever they may lead me with it. Welcome back Wizarding World, it's so great to visit you once more.
The Edge Of Seventeen
Teenage slice of life stories are nothing new, and neither are teenage slice of life movies, and to say they're a dime a dozen would be an understatement. Not that that's a bad thing, any story is a dime a dozen, even the seemingly original stories when you really dissect them. But still, movies like "The Graduate," or "Juno" and stories like "The Catcher in the Rye" tend to resonate a lot with teenage or young adult audiences because they all have themes that we can relate to when we were teens (or as we're viewing them through a teen's perspective). Some of these stories and movies can age horribly as you... well, age, but the really special ones stick with you and still manage to be relevant even as time goes on and you morph into a much different person than you were during your four (or more or less, different strokes) years in high school. High school itself is a pretty important time in a person's life, molding you into becoming who you're gonna be for the rest of your life (to unintentionally paraphrase the first Sam Raimi "Spider-Man"). What you do, who you hang out with, where you decide to go to college if that's what you wanna do, all of this and more determines your future, and when you're more of an introverted person who is awkward and separated from the crowd at the worst of times, it can feel like the future is very bleak indeed. Enter this movie, giving what might be the most real teenage slice of life movie this side of "Boyhood."
Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) has never been an outgoing girl. While her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) excels in sports and is extremely extroverted, earning the favor of their mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), all Nadine has is the support of her father, Tom (Eric Keenleyside) and her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Things start to change once Nadine hits her teenage years, and Tom dies of a sudden heart attack while the two are driving home. The next four years sees little change for Nadine, still introverted and awkward, even around equally awkward classmate Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), who has an all to apparent crush on her, and her own crush, a bad boy delinquent named Nick (Alexander Calvert). Things take an even deeper nosedive when Nadine finds Darian and Krista in bed together, a legitimate relationship promptly following. Isolated now more than ever, she seeks the advice of her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and digs herself deeper into isolation, rejecting Krista for her relationship with her brother and earning scorn from her mother who is at the end of her rope trying to get through to her daughter. Confusion, rejection and teenage angst abounds as Nadine tries to make sense of her life while it all seems to come tumbling down around her.
The first thing to note about this movie after sitting through the whole thing is how mellow it all is. The pacing is slow but not so slow that it feels like nothing is happening in any given scene, the performances are nuanced and reflect how modern teenagers talk or text, and even how some adults interact with them, and the whole thing has this air of laxness to it, even when the more dramatic elements kick in. I think that's mainly because it does feel like we're watching an actual story that could happen to any teenage girl, let alone any teenager. It reminds me of the kind of slice of life stories starring teenage girl protagonists that I absolutely adore. Stuff like the Studio Ghibli film "Whisper of the Heart" or the book "Why We Broke Up" by Daniel Handler (more famously known by his nom de plume, Lemony Snicket) which both focus on the life of a young female adolescent and their wants and relationships and such. I didn't really think about it as I resolved to myself that this was the kind of movie I'd like to see in theaters and show my support towards in its very cramped opening weekend (though it's not like it has any competition from a well-beloved fantasy franchise making a nostalgic comeback or anything), but driving to the movie theater and sitting down watching said movie, I did start to wonder why I'm drawn to these stories where a teenage girl is the focal point. I resolved to myself as I was nearing the end of the movie and we were going through the big gloom moment where Nadine looks and feels like she hasn't got anyone who cares for her in the world, that it's because these kind of stories don't really feel appreciated by major audiences as a whole.
That's a major theme of the movie itself while we're at it; Nadine doesn't feel understood or appreciated by anybody in her life. This certainly isn't improved when Krista starts to date her brother and gets to know a few of his friends and socialize with them better than she does. The two slowly drift apart after that until they split in two entirely after a big argument where Nadine forces her to chose between their friendship or her relationship. You could easily deride her for this brash and selfish outburst from your own perspective, and I certainly never thought she was in the right of any of these arguments she had, but I also never lost my empathy towards her or my understanding of why she was making these decisions and feeling as she does. It's easy to forget how stupid we all were when we were teens (heck, some people still act like dumb teenagers even when they're thrice the age of one), and maybe you didn't make the same brash decisions or arguments as Nadine did, but you've got to have at least one regret from those words. The way you acted, what you said to somebody important, we all have made some blunder or two we'd rather not remember when we were that age. So for Nadine to act selfish and demand her best friend, the only person she feels truly connects with her, ditch her brother and stay her friend and nothing more, that's not bad writing, that's excellent character molding.
The other characters receive excellent molding as well. Transforming from basic shapes to complex figures as the movie goes on. Basically every character you think you've figured out, alongside Nadine, has a bit more to them than you'd guess (except for one, he's just a jerk, but even then there are sadly people exactly like him in real life). Mona, her mother, is definitely going through mental problems of her own in the wake of her father's death, and isn't always the best at rationalizing herself or saying what her daughter needs to hear. The equally awkward Erwin is every teenage nerd trying his best to court a girl he really likes and it's endearing to watch all their scenes together and see a genuine connection form, even if Nadine is reluctant to admit there is one. The biggest warm welcome in the movie is the character of Mr. Bruner, playing that one high school teacher that just got their students more than most. We all had that one high school teacher (maybe two or more if you're lucky) that connected to their students on a more personal level, either through their teaching or how they just talked to us like we were smart people who weren't just minds to be programmed by the school district for when we enter the work force. And even if his teaching seems to leave a little to be desired (at one point he puts on a movie and leaves the room) his good influence on Nadine and wisdom masked through dry wit that only Woody Harrelson can provide so effortlessly can't be denied, and they brought good memories to mind from teachers who have influenced my own life in a very positive way.
Even for all the support she gets from these people, she still more or less puts labels on them and doesn't expect them to fall out of those stereotypes she assigns them. Especially her own brother, whom she has always thought was coaxing through life with their mother's favor. But it's not like we don't do that all the time on a daily basis. Even someone passing us by on the street for a split second we assign a label to them, good or bad. Sometimes this can be a relatively harmless gesture, and other times it can be dangerous, negatively impacting our view on some people or groups as a whole. This is especially true for teenagers.
Maybe you hadn't noticed, but teenagers get a horrible rep from older generations. And... yeah, I'm not gonna defend all of them, but you have to understand, you were a teenager once too. Aging past your adolescent years doesn't make you completely removed from when you were a teen, and discrediting the voice of teens, the generation that will still be there when you're gone, will do no one any good. And that, I think, is why these stories tend to resonate with people, and why they resonate with me. Teenage girls as a majority feel like they aren't taken very seriously, what with the stereotypes of their fledgling hormones, their gossiping, catty behavior, back-handedness and what-have-you, but to blindly assign that stereotype to every teenage girl is as negative as any other, and it hurts no one more than them. Everyone is much more complex than what they appear to be on the surface, and that annoying teenage girl who won't shut up about boys or fashion or whatever else you think they talk about has much more going on than anything superficial like that. So to see a story told from this perspective, especially the perspective of an introvert (something I can personally relate to a great deal), is always refreshing, even if the story beats are familiar. And yes, this movie is familiar, but familiar in the sense that you feel like it gets you.
It gets what being a teen is like, it gets what being an introvert is like. It gets those negative stereotypes and why they're such a crock, and it gets that adults like teachers and parents are just people too, with their own problems to sort out even if they look like they have it all together. This movie and these characters don't shy away from that, and I think that helps it to resonate with that part of you that will always remember what being a teen was like, the good and the bad. It's especially refreshing to find out that this movie wasn't based off a book or anything like that, it's completely the brain child of its director and writer, Kelly Fremon Craig. Figuring out the minuscule but revealing detail that the person behind this great lead and story is a woman, who probably has her own stories of teenage stupidity, makes this movie's poignancy just a bit more credible. It would still be a fine movie if it were written by a man, heck the book I mentioned before by Daniel Handler you probably couldn't tell was written by a man if you didn't see it on the cover, but it's always nice to get these stories from someone who probably has those experiences because they were what the protagonist is. I'm hopeful that this movie will put her on the map either for her directorial or writing skills, both of which promise a grand career in the years to come.
No matter your own experiences as a teen or whether your teenage years were pleasant or unbearable (or maybe a bit of both) I think everyone can gain something great by watching this movie. An appreciation for those times long past, an appreciation for where you are as a teenager on the edge of seventeen and beyond, or if you're just looking for a quirky coming of age story that offers some great performances and great drama to fill out a mellow hundred minutes. If you get the chance to see this movie, I definitely recommend it. We need more stories like this, and more creators like Craig to help us gain some new perspective and appreciation on overlooked people such as Nadine. Who knows, maybe it could be you.
I was thinking about how strange the differences between this decade and the last are. There's plenty you could say about the 2000s and the climate of fear in the wake of terrorism, the rise of technology and all that jazz. But I don't dwell on that stuff much (mostly because I don't want to open any floodgates), I mostly thought about the difference in superhero movies. I was born at the right time when superhero films were just starting to get a leg up after the dark ages of the 90s with the likes of "Spawn," "Steel," or "Batman and Robin" *shudders*. The very first "X-Men," released in 2000, definitely showed that you could do a superhero film that both did justice to the comics to please fans, and be a financial and critical hit as well. But I think it was really Sam Raimi's first "Spider-Man" that showed just how impactful a superhero film could be in the box office. That opened the door to more superheroes seeing life on the big screen, to varying success. And throughout most of the decade prior, you didn't see a whole lot of the more obscure comic book characters get the blockbuster treatment. Sure most audiences unaware of the comics probably didn't know who Ghost Rider or The Punisher were (and probably still had little idea afterwards given the nature of those movies) but you only ever saw the big league guys like Batman, the Fantastic Four, or Hulk, to name a few, get their limelight on the big screen. I say all this because ten years ago it would be literally impossible to imagine something like Doctor Strange in a movie of his own. I bring it back to Spider-Man by remembering the most hope fans had of anything Strange film-wise was the namedrop they gave him in "Spider-Man 2." And here we are, in the Stinkin' Tens (or so I shall call them if this year keeps sucking the way it does), and so far we've seen movies based on the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Thor, and stretching back a bit we had the first Iron Man that kickstarted this whole superhero madness. Give it to me straight, did you know who any of these characters were before these movies came out? I certainly didn't. I certainly didn't know much about Doctor Strange either, and to this movie's credit, after watching it I definitely wanna know more.
Brilliant and egotistical neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself on the other side of the operating table when a car crash ruins the nerves in his hands, rendering him unfit for his profession. Dejected, he pushes everyone in his life away, including fellow surgeon and old flame Christine Palmer (Rachel MacAdams), until he is presented with an alternative means to restore his hands. While visiting Nepal he meets Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who takes him to meet his master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She shows Strange her powers of magic, revealing the astral plane and other dimensions, with the promise that he might be able to learn the power to heal himself. Strange's ego makes the training difficult, making him question the teachings and get on the nerves of some of the other masters like Wong (Benedict Wong), but his true character is put to the test when the sanctums protecting Earth from a dark force are threatened by a fallen pupil named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Will Strange realize his full potential and become something greater than just a man who serves himself, or will this dark force enslave the Earth long before we ever get a third 'Avengers' movie?
Going back to Spider-Man for a minute, I should mention that without the web-slinger I would have no idea who Doctor Strange even is (I first heard about, like, 3/4ths of Marvel's characters from Spidey). He was featured in an episode of the '90s animated series that I barely remember but had something to do with him teaming up with Spider-Man to stop the same evil he faces in this movie and save Mary Jane in the process (of course). Anything else to do with the good Doctor, I haven't the foggiest (though I think he was in an episode of a more recent Spidey series too, which I saw... hm). Anyway, for fans of the comics this has been a widely anticipated movie and I can see why. Doctor Strange is very much distinct from his superhero counterparts, dealing with magical powers and alternate dimensions and all that jazz. Something that's pretty common place in the comics but hasn't been all that explored in the Marvel films, apart from maybe Thor. And there was plenty of opportunity to have a character with powers like that feel a bit too out of place in this cinematic universe (which also featured a cameo by Howard the freakin' Duck of all characters), but again, I have to give Marvel credit for how it handles the introduction of some of its more outlandish characters. Much like "Guardians of the Galaxy" or "Ant-Man," what you'd think would be Marvel's first major blunder they handle in just the right way to explain the rules of these characters and endear you to them.
A huge part of that comes from the acting which carries the film through its major shortcoming in my eyes (which I shall discuss promptly). Of course you can't go five seconds talking about Benedict Cumberbatch without praising him so I'll just get that out of the way now... Benedict Cumberbatch is great... what do you want from me? But in all seriousness, when the movie started I wondered just how much I was going to like Stephen or how much I could get behind the performance when his American accent is about as convincing as when Dick Van Dyke tried a Cockney accent. Stephen is also the typical, egotistical jerk character that redeems himself as the film goes on that we've seen countless of times before, we've even seen it in stuff like the 'Iron Man' or Thor' movies. But Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing egotistical jerks, as his run on BBC's "Sherlock" will show, and a large number of people who watch that show (and can bear its lengthy hiatuses) can still get behind that interpretation of Sherlock Holmes despite his jerkiness and ego, and whatever he learned from there he applies to Stephen Strange's character. It helps that we can sympathize with him through his hardship too. Obviously he's in the wrong when he attacks someone like Christine during his darkest hour but we aren't immediately turned off to him despite that nastiness. Maybe that's because Cumberbatch just has this natural charm to him that makes you like him no matter what role he's in or he just really knows how to play a jerk character and still make him likeable, either way it works.
His chemistry with all his co-stars (and, surprisingly, his cape) helps the film a great deal too. The movie doesn't have the wit in its writing that something like 'Guardians' or 'Civil War' did, but there are some very humorous moments in the dialogue exchanged between people like Strange and the Ancient One or him and Wong or Mordo, even with the villain on one occasion. They also play around with the astral projection bit of his powers during one scene with Christine that got a lot of laughs. The acting is all very good, no denying, but the major problem I have with the movie, personally, is the plot. It's not very... original?
I mean, it's hard to do an origin story movie any justice any more. You've seen one, you've basically seen them all. What filmmakers need to do in order to keep them fresh is to really give us new twists to the formula like what "Deadpool" did through its fourth wall breaking earlier this year, or really go all out with some of the themes it's trying to present. And this movie did have some really great themes to it, as well as some great motivation for its main antagonist, but neither felt fully realized because of how by the numbers it felt as an origin story. The major theme of the movie is how little humanity is in control of themselves and how inevitable our death is, and, despite the morbidity, I always find myself drawn to those themes in stories because it draws on the primal fear that everyone has on loss and what happens when we die. Everyone goes through that fear at some point, no matter how they rationalize it with faith or general acceptance or something else, and everyone struggles with loss when something bad like death happens to them. Both sides are expressed by multiple characters in this movie, and it's a major driving point of the motivations of Strange, Kaecilius and the Ancient One. So the movie definitely has some very smart themes, but I just wish it would've focused a bit more on them apart from a few really good scenes more than focusing on the stuff we've seen before in countless other origin stories. The training, the questioning of the mentor, the struggle to grasp the subject, all that noise. It's never uninteresting or anything, I've just seen it before.
However, another major thing that saves the movie is the visuals. When I saw the trailers to this thing I thought maybe it was a little too derivative of "Inception" in the way it shows a distorted and twisted New York, but it's more than just a flip-flopped city or upside down hallway or what you saw in that movie. The film goes all out with its use of magic and the shifts in the camera really give you an otherwordly feel and each of the major fights all stand out because of that. Granted, the CGI for the characters don't always look that great, but a lot of the effects are flipping fantastic and something akin to an acid trip (though I'd know nothing about that from personal experience). Honestly it's kind of hard to describe just how surreal and unlike any other movie they are, and I'd probably recommend the movie just for that alone.
I do know, though, that there is a controversy that's surrounded this movie for a while that might influence people's decision to see this movie; the casting of Tilda Swinton. The Ancient One in the comics is seen as a Tibetan person and a lot of the lore of the character itself comes from Tibet, and the casting of Celtic actress Swinton was largely seen by many people as a way to sell the movie to the Chinese market, since they notoriously despise Tibet and its people. Maybe the intention was to ensure people wouldn't be offended by any stereotypes that might have come with the original Ancient One (I know nothing of the character so I have no idea how sensitive he was or wasn't), and I know for a fact they changed Wong from Strange's servant to teacher for that very reason, but since China is responsible for a large amount of foreign gross for Marvel, it is pretty suspect. And I dunno, there is a way to keep a character's race as is and present them in a way that isn't offensive. I cited this before with last year's "Pan" (every time I think of that movie I lose a brain cell glarp), but when that movie cast Rooney Mara as the traditionally Native American portrayed Tiger Lily, I brought up the 2003 "Peter Pan" that featured actual Native Americans as the natives of Neverland and it was a way better portrayal than half the other adaptations out there (including the Disney version... seriously, just watch that scene again and try not to cringe). So you could definitely cast a Tibetan actor or actress and have the character be dignified still. But I don't know Marvel's true intent with the choice and no one else does either apart from speculation. And if you want to skip the movie for that reason, I won't blame you, I'm all for the diversification of casting in movies (which is probably moot to say since I saw this movie anyway but, I'll see anything if it interests me, no matter how much I disagree with certain things about it).
That aside, "Doctor Strange" is a movie that pays off in some unexpected ways while delivering a pretty expected story. It may not be completely original in its premise or the way that premise is told, but it's definitely unique in how it presents itself as almost a straight up magic movie rather than superhero one (like Harry Potter on steroids or something). The majority of the characters are endearing and when the dialogue is really clever it can get a few laughs out of you. And maybe I'm just missing something from the plot that elevates it from good to great in other peoples' books. It's a good movie, I enjoyed watching it and might watch it again every so often, but I wouldn't rank it as one of the best of the best Marvel movies. But it also had the trouble of following up 'Civil War' which I thought was fantastic, so maybe that had something to do with it too. If you're interested, you should check it out and decide for yourself.
Dreamworks is a weird company. I mean that with the utmost respect, but when you take a step back and look at some of the movies they've made, Dreamworks is a really freaking weird company. At least in terms of their animation. I mean seriously, you have some of their most acclaimed stuff that hit you with some really emotional stories and characters like "Kung Fu Panda" or "How to Train Your Dragon," but you also have an ant movie starring Woody Allen and a bee movie (literally called "Bee Movie") starring Jerry Seinfeld... who... who would ever come up with that? For better or worse, Dreamworks Animation isn't afraid to take chances with the movies they make. Sometimes that can pay off, like it did with the "Shrek" or "Madagascar" films that are so surreal I can't imagine a lot of other film studios would make them. And sometimes, mostly through bad marketing and poor release dates, it doesn't. You never really know what you're gonna get with a Dreamworks film (much like a box of chocolates, if you will). I feel like most people don't give them the credit they deserve and more often than not they can deliver a really great surprise like "Rise of the Guardians" or "Megamind," but I can't pretend like everything they've done is perfect. And sometimes they'll make a movie that looks so surreal that you have no idea what to make of it from trailers alone. Enter their second offering of 2016, "Trolls," based on those creepy toys you never owned but popped up in day cares, preschools or in that one house with the creepy kid your mom forced you to play with... what, just me for that last one? Anyway, when the trailers for this movie came out I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one scratching their heads and uttering a silent or vocal, "What?" Given the track record of Dreamworks this could either be a pleasant surprise or as awkward and forced as you'd expect from a movie based off a toy line that no one ever liked. And to the complete credit of Dreamworks and everyone else involved in this movie's making, it's definitely not the latter... but... what is this movie?
Every year in Bergen Town, there is a great festival where tiny creatures called Trolls (TM) are devoured mercilessly by the Bergens, who feel they cannot be happy without eating them, since the Trolls are creatures of inherent happiness. On the festival where Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is set to eat his first Troll, the Trolls make their escape from Bergen Town and make a home for their own far away from danger. The Bergen King's top Chef (Christine Baranski) is banished for losing the Trolls, and the next twenty years see the happy creatures in a time of peace and freedom, led by Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). On the night of the 20th anniversary since their escape, the Trolls throw a massive party that attracts the disgraced Chef, who captures a few of Poppy's friends and plots to use them to earn her way back in the kingdom's good graces, and back into power. Poppy seeks help from the one Troll who has spent most of his life preparing against the Bergens, Branch (Justin Timberlake), and also the only Troll who doesn't partake in any of the singing or hugging that Poppy and the others do. The unlikely duo will have to brave the wilderness and all its deadly creatures, as well as the threat of being eaten by Bergens as they attempt to save Poppy's friends, as well as help a lovestruck Bergen named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) who may be their only chance of getting close to the new King Gristle and his upper hand Chef unscathed.
That sounds like a lot for what looks like a basic movie. And yeah, I'd be lying if I said this movie wasn't pretty basic. You can pretty much guess where it's going within the first five minutes and there aren't a lot of major twists or turns that wow adults who have seen these kinds of stories before. There's a grump, there's a not so grump, they go on an adventure, and voila, they end the movie as unlikely friends (maybe more (usually more)). But again, I have to give credit to the movie for at least telling a familiar story with a familiar (and creepy) toy line, and doing it in a pretty creative way.
The first thing I have to give props for is them making the characters not look like abominations from the fires of Hell itself that the original toys were (and to be fair, there is a pretty funny nod to the original toys pretty early in the movie that made me laugh). Each Troll looks pretty distinct, even if more than a few of them look the same, and they all have pretty distinct personalities. Sort of like a more diverse version of the Smurfs in a way. The Bergens are a bit more what you'd imagine traditional trolls would look like, and they all have pretty distinct character designs too. They kind of reminded me of something Don Bluth would animate, especially the trolls from one of his movies, "A Troll in Central Park" (a.k.a. the only cool part of that movie (I'm sorry Mr. Bluth, I love you)). The song selection is pretty nice too. It's mostly a jukebox musical with one or two original songs or remixes thrown in there, and yeah, you could argue that this is supposed to be its own world and they shouldn't know songs like "Hello" or "It's a Sunshine Day," but you don't really care about that as you're watching the movie, you get wrapped up in the songs and the talent they got to sing them. I mean, compare it to something like "Strange Magic," another animated jukebox musical I saw last year (that practically no one else did, and not for bad reason), the songs didn't feel like they were tacked on just to fill out the soundtrack. Most of them serve some purpose to the plot or themes of the movie, so I give them a pass, even if logically they don't fit in this world.
While I mostly found myself growing to like the two leads, especially from Kendrick and Timberlake's chemistry, most of the other Trolls were kind of bland outside their given characteristics. You have a larger one, a sparkly one that speaks in auto-tune and shoots glitter out his butt (yeah, there's those kind of jokes in the movie, but at least they don't make up a lot of the humor), a zen one, a pair of twins, and some others, and we don't really get to know that much more about them the way we do the leads or some of the other supporting characters like the Bergen King or Bridget. I mean, this is a pretty large cast of characters so some are going to have to sit on the sidelines a little bit, but when you sit them on the sidelines in favor of some other characters and subplots they feel a little bit like set decoration or plot points rather than characters we should be invested in. I didn't really feel a major pressing need to see them get saved, even if by contrast I didn't want them to get gobbled up either. I just wish they had a little more development, that's all.
But for a movie that at most has basic characters and a basic plot you can predict from the offset, I did have a pretty fun time with it, and I can't see anything that would impact kids negatively in it. The audience I saw it with (a decent mixture of kids, parents, and teens) had a great time, and there were a number of jokes that hit the right part of my funny bone. And it is nice to watch a basic but feel-nice movie every now and then, not like a number of my childhood favorites or some movies I've liked from this year aren't like that. If you've seen any of the trailers or promotional material and can't see yourself getting past the overt saccharine tone then you probably should stay away, unless your kid wants to see it or something. But if you're willing to give the movie a chance, you might enjoy yourself and come out with some catchy tunes in your head. Not much else to say about it besides that. Nothing spectacular, but nothing awful either. You could make a solid argument that kids deserve a bit more than that, but I say there's nothing wrong with giving them a little mindless fluff every now and then. As long as it's not downright insulting their intelligence or talking down to them.
Long story short, it has more creativity to offer than what the trailers promise, but whether or not that creativity pays off is entirely up to you. Pretty much my go-to closing statement when talking about movies but it's the truth. In fact, why are you even reading this, I don't need to tell you what to watch... but thanks anyway... weirdos.
I mentioned in a recent review ('Miss Peregrine' I think it was) that of the hundreds upon thousands of directors in Hollywood and the cinema beyond it, one of the first that may pop into your mind for their style alone is Stanley Kubrick. And I stand by this statement since I'm pretty sure most film buffs won't refute it, Stanley Kubrick is often cited as one of the greatest directors of all time. The way he set up his shots, his attention to the most minute detail, every little cut and edit in a film he made, it all had a purpose to the greater story he was trying to tell in all his movies, and he certainly had range in the movies he did. Most of them, like 'Dr. Strangelove' or '2001,' becoming staples of their genre (comedy and science fiction for those two examples, respectively). Yes, I'm pretty sure no one will deny that Kubrick was a genius. He was also a bit of a jerk. Not even a bit of a jerk, he was a HUGE jerk, and that's putting it lightly. It's very rare that such a perfectionist as himself isn't one. While his skill at directing can't be denied, it's also worth mentioning that the methods he went to achieve his vision was at great expense to his crew and his cast for a majority of his films. In this movie alone there are reports of him viciously insulting Shelley Duvall, and pushing Scatman Crothers to an emotional breakdown over numerous retakes of just one scene. Stephen King probably put it best with a quote he made regarding his feelings on the movie, "[He] thinks too much and feels too little." But whatever you may think of the man personally (similar to other questionable, and morally worse, directors like Polanski or Allen), his avant garde and impact on film is unquestionable. And nowhere is that more present than in today's topic of discussion, "The Shining." Possibly Kubrick's most popular movie, and subsequently one of author Stephen King's most popular novels, "The Shining" is called one of the best horror movies of all time, with considerable praise going towards its atmosphere and chilling performances from Nicholson and Duvall alone. But the interesting fact about it is, it wasn't always seen that way.
Recovering alcoholic and struggling writer (figures for a King story) Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is looking for a fresh start by applying for a caretaker position of the Overlook Hotel, a job that will see him, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) all alone for six months during the off season. While Danny's parents are enthusiastic about the change, Danny can't help but feel hesitant, especially when his mysterious, supposedly imaginary friend Tony starts showing him horrible visions of things in the hotel. Despite these foreboding warnings, the Torrance family sets up shop at the hotel straight away, Jack ready to start his novel at last and Danny finding a connection with the hotel's chef, Dick Hallorann, who shares Danny's strange telepathic powers, which he calls "Shining." As weeks go by tensions begin to rise with the isolated family, as Danny continues to see terrifying visions and Jack becomes unhinged the longer he wanders the hotel's halls. Culminating in a meeting with the former caretaker of the Overlook, and a terrible part of the hotel's past repeating itself as Jack's sanity breaks and sends his family in a frenzy for their lives. You know, your average family getaway in the Colorado mountains.
If you don't know much about the history of this movie, but you're well aware of its impact and legacy, it may surprise you to learn that when it first came out it wasn't as well received as it is today. No, when it first came out critics were pretty mixed about it, not to mention Stephen King disowned it, saying it was great as a movie but horrible as an adaptation of his book (a stance he may or may not have softened on in recent years). It's understandable that he would have that reaction, since the original book and the character of Jack Torrance reflect his own path to life without alcohol. Yeah, it may also surprise you to know (or perhaps not given the nature of book to film adaptations) that the original book and the movie are almost polar opposites in what actually happens in them. I've never read the book myself (not for lack of trying, got through the first 100 pages before I gave up cuz my attention span for reading has been shamefully low recently (I'll try again in the near future)) but from what I've looked up, seen from clips of the 1997 miniseries which was a more faithful adaptation to the book, and from what one of my friends who's an enormous Stephen King fan has said, the book and the movie share only the premise, the character names and a few key scenes. Everything else about the movie is Kubrick's baby. It's worth mentioning, for irony's sake alone, that the film also received two Golden Raspberry Award nominations (the anti-Oscars for bad movies, if you don't know) for Worst Actress (Duvall) and Worst Director (the Razzies are as much a crock as the Oscars are though, so that's not saying much).
Safe to say that since then public and critical perception of the film has done a significant 180, with endless praise out the butt for all the qualities I've mentioned before. And yeah, I'll agree with a lot of the praise, it is a very well made movie. But that's kind of the keyword for me, "well made." There are a lot of movies I consider "well made," does that necessarily mean I think that particular movie is completely flawless plot or character wise? Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh...
Before you start trying to track me down and go all Jack Nicholson on me let me clarify I don't think this is a bad movie by any means, it's not called a classic without reason. However I also can't act like I think it's perfect either. There are a few grievances I have with it, especially its first two acts, that keep me from calling it a masterpiece (which is extremely haughty to say but it's all subjective). A large portion of my grievances actually come from Jack himself (oooooh you're really gonna hate me for this one). Even without the consideration of Jack Torrance's redemption in the book, what makes movies like this, where the characters are isolated from larger society and one of them grows more and more insane, work so effectively is how you set it all up. And given everything that happens in the climax of the movie, I'd say the film does do a pretty good job of setting itself up. You're taken on a tour of the hotel along with the characters and are shown all the rooms and areas of the hotel that will play a key part in the movie, even if you don't realize it on a first viewing. It also sets up the backstory of the former caretaker going insane as well, killing his family in a similar manner to how Jack will in the near future. There's a lot of great foreshadowing in the first act that's done through mostly visual cues that is perfect for the visual medium that is film. However, where the set up falters for me is the characterization of Jack.
If there is a formula to horror movies (and you could make a valid argument that they are very formulaic) it's that, generally speaking, the first act of the movie, up to the inciting incident at least, will be as non-threatening as it possibly can be. Think about it; "The Exorcist" focused on Regan and her mother's relationship with nary a scare in sight, any slasher movie will start off with the teenagers being typical, dumb teenagers, stuff like that. There are exceptions to the rule (such as the fantastic opening scene of the first "Scream"), but in most horror movies, they work to keep the tone of the first few minutes as light as they can, so you can relate to the characters more and care about what happens to them when the crap hits the fan. The problem with that in this movie is that Jack is already kind of an unhinged and cold character. Which may have been the intent, seeing as how he's a recovering alcoholic and might be a little short because of that, but even in scenes where he's at his most amiable Jack Nicholson can't help but be... well, Jack Nicholson. Torrance is arguably his most famous role in the public eye (and have you ever noticed that all the crazy, evil people he plays are also named Jack, at least this guy and the Joker anyway), and I think it's what people typically think of a Nicholson performance, so when you finally watch the movie for yourself it doesn't unnerve you as much for much of the second act where he's supposed to be falling under the trap of the hotel (or cabin fever depending on how you interpret it). Especially in scenes like when they're all in the car and it's supposed to be this average, small talk between the three and Jack already sounds like he could cut them all up in a split second.
Again, maybe that was the intent, especially since his redemption arc is cut out of the film and he's a straight up antagonist, but I feel like it would've been even more effective if we got to see Nicholson play a genuinely nice guy for most of the start of it. I mean, he can do that. It's a bad example since he's not really a nice guy, but Jake Gittes from "Chinatown" is a pretty average guy and not the kind of role you would expect Nicholson to play given the public perception of Torrance. He has range, he can play sympathetic and average, so I would've liked to see that with Torrance before he started losing it, personally.
Some of the other performances can feel a little over the top or melodramtic too. Sad to say that most of that comes from Duvall, who went through a lot of crap in the making of this movie, as previously touched upon, but I feel like a lot of her facial expressions and ways she reacts to certain things in the hotel are a little... well, not realistic? I don't have a very strong basis of comparison as to how someone would realistically react to something like this, but there are certain bits where you can't deny a lot of it is a touch on the silly side. You remember that bit where she's ascending the stairs slowly and she stumbles across that guy in the dog suit doing... things with another guy in a room and they stop what they're doing and stare at her. She stares back all doe-eyed then saunters away. Like... what? I mean, I don't know how I'd respond to that either but it can be a little jarring when the rest of the climax is pretty effective. I don't know, it's not a huge nitpick, despite how much I've griped on it, her performance can just be a little hit and miss at times. At least for me.
The movie is also a slow burn. And I mean a really slow burn. That's not entirely a bad thing, I can appreciate a movie that takes its time and draws you into the atmosphere, but when Kubrick wants to drag you into the atmosphere of his movies, he's going to take a very long amount of time to do that. I'm not saying some scenes would work better if they were cut sooner or edited in a more conventional horror style, that would ruin the effect this movie has overall, but I won't pretend like every scene kept me in constant suspense, even when I first saw this. Whether or not the slower pacing turns you off to the movie will be entirely up to you and your preference for how quick a movie moves along in its plot, but even to me there were times where it couldn't keep my attention in full.
So for all my complaints and nitpicks do I have anything to praise about this movie? Oh, of course I do. Two words; THE. CLIMAX. The slower pacing of the movie, the gripes I have about Nicholson's performance, even some of the sillier nature of Danny's lines and the whole, obvious REDRUM thing, all of that is lost once the last thirty or so minutes of this movie start. The moment that Danny starts screaming REDRUM in his Tony voice and Jack takes the first swing of his axe, oh my Lord, pure unbridled suspense and terror follows and will not stop hunting you until the movie is long over. Even to someone who has seen the movie before, not to mention seen the climax a number of times, it still works, and you still find yourself shouting and wishing for the characters to get out of there and away from Jack. It's one of the best climaxes of any horror movie, and it's like the slow burn ended up crossing paths with a dozen barrels of gasoline to leave you very satisfied by the time the credits roll. It's one of those unique cases for me where the movie was perfectly fine as it went along, but the ending elevated it to something even greater.
And like I said before, it's a very well made movie. The cinematography is beautiful, the sets are fantastic with a healthy mixture of grandiose and simple. The size and scope of the hotel truly emulates that feeling of isolation that the characters are experiencing and help to keep the tension going, with only a few scenes taking place outside the hotel to give you any relief. The music is plenty scary too, as any good horror soundtrack should be. The madcap plucking of strings to signify the uneasiness of Wendy or Jack's descent into madness can often work as an effective jump scare, even when nothing scary is happening, and when all breaks loose at the end and they add in the ominous chanting to the mix? Brrrrr.
All in all, despite any problems I may have with it, I still think it's an overall great movie, objectively. A movie that has stood the test of time and will probably be well regarded in the horror genre by critics and fans alike for years to come. It may not be a perfect adaptation of the original story, but like Mr. King said himself, it still works as its own thing. Kubrick took an already suspenseful story and translated it into perhaps an even darker and more frightening tale that blurs the line between what is real and what is simply the ever unhinging mind of an isolated man, and you have to give him credit for the wonders it did overall. Like or dislike the film, like or dislike Kubrick, I say it's worth a watch just for the sake of watching it. It may not satisfy your craving of horror completely, but I think there's bound to be something in there that will make this movie stay fresh in your mind long after you bid the Overlook and its patrons adieu.
So have I made it clear how much 2016 sucks? I'm not a very negative person, generally, and even when bad things happen to me or around me in a given year or otherwise prolonged period of time I don't let it get me down but... 2016 sucks! Never mind all the political diarrhea we have to deal with in my country or the equally bad droppings in other countries around the world, you also have celebrities dropping like flies. Musicians, golf players, comedians, directors, you name the entertainment profession, someone's probably died who was famous in it (which I guess is true of every year but whatever, I'm making a biased point). One of the more recent deaths that was a sock to the gut for fans of comedy was Gene Wilder, who sadly died back in early September due to complications with Alzheimer's (which he never even made public that he had). It was inevitable given his age that he would go sooner than later but like I said about David Bowie, it's still a shock when someone like that goes. Especially when that somebody has influenced you personally in some way. While I haven't seen even the lion share of his filmography (or even read some of his romantic novels he wrote later on in his life, the guy had a wide variety of talents), I can honestly say Gene Wilder has had an impact on my own comedic style in a subtle way. He was just one of those comedic performers you wanted to emulate. The way he delivered a punch line or emphasized a line with RANDOM YELLING mixed with the utmost sincerity and soft spoken passion, there were few like him. I've praised him earlier this year when I looked at 'Willy Wonka' while it was in theaters for its anniversary, but after his death I knew I couldn't leave it at that. And it was just my luck that not so long after the worst news of 2016 (that week), they announced a special, one night only screening of what many believe to be Mel Brooks's finest film, himself included, "Young Frankenstein." A tour de force of parody, this film has been frequently cited as one of the best comedies of all time, and it's really not hard to see why, even from your first viewing.
Frederick Frankenstein ("Franc-en-steen", Gene Wilder), the grandson of infamous scientist Victor Frankenstein, has somewhat followed in his footsteps by becoming a respected doctor in neuroscience but tries to distance himself from his family name as best he can for obvious reasons. This all changes when he is given the last will and testament of his great grandfather and inherits his family castle in Transylvania. Leaving behind his socialite fiance, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), he travels to Transylvania where he meets the grandson of Igor, Igor ("Eye-gor", Marty Feldman) and Inga (Teri Garr) who will both assist him in any of his needs. On his first night at the castle, after meeting the strange and foreboding Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), Frederick hears music that lures him to his grandfather's infamous laboratory and secret library, reading a book that inspires him to continue his grandfather's work and perfect it. They do this with a recently deceased brute of a man that shall become the new Creature (Peter Boyle), but when the intended brain is switched with an "Abby Normal" one and the Creature gets loose, will Frederick and his friends be able to repair the damage they have done?
First of all, can we appreciate what a clever premise this is? Obviously in the original story the good doctor (or perhaps not so good depending on who you ask or how you interpret his relationship with the Creature) died long before he had a chance to produce any heirs (and if you're getting angry cuz I spoiled that for you, the book is almost 200 years old, get over it), but it's that kind of "what-if" question that makes for a great follow up story premise. Even better when that follow up is a parody of all the tropes surrounding the "Frankenstein" book and plethora of adaptations that have come out over the years. This film, while taking a few elements from the original story, mostly pays homage to the classic Universal monster movies of the '30s, more specifically the 'Frankenstein' series of movies directed by James Whale, his 1931 classic starring Boris Karloff in particular. And the mark of what makes a movie like this a truly great parody is when the person watching it has never seen the original movie, or movies, it's parodying and yet can still get many of the jokes and references and laugh at them all the same. This is pretty much my relationship with this movie to a T, since, and I know this will probably dock me some film buff points, I've never seen any of the original monster movie classics.
I know, shocking, especially when those movies have inspired some of the great directorial minds of our time like Peter Jackson or George Lucas (yeah I'd call him a great directorial mind, doesn't mean all his films are perfect (oh yeah, and Lucas too)), but I was never really drawn to monster movies as a kid cuz I was a wimp. I knew about them though, from parodies or kid friendly takes on them or the like, and all of them from Dracula to the Mummy to Swamp Thing are just too burned into pop culture osmosis to never make an impression on you at an early point in your film loving life (the best life, tbh). Certainly the image of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein is right up there too in that image forever burned in your mind. To the point where it was a legit surprise to me when I saw a much more faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's original book, a play by Danny Boyle starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller who swapped roles as Victor and the Creature on various nights (which is very flipping good and coming to select theaters this month, go check it out if you can), where the Creature could talk and didn't have the green makeup or bolts in his neck. So strong is the public perception of Frankenstein (which isn't even the name of the monster) that it wouldn't surprise me if people went their whole lives never knowing how things went down in the book or how smart and complex the Creature is in it. But a major strength of "Young Frankenstein" is that it doesn't require you to be familiar with any of the prior adaptations or book because it does what I've figured out every great parody movie does. It plays itself straight.
Sure, there are a few winks to the audience through a few fourth wall gags (mostly delivered by Marty Feldman, who sells them all for a barrel of laughs) but other than that the winks aren't really the forefront of the comedy. The comedy comes from the characters all behaving as if they were in a straight up '30s horror film, even for all the ridiculousness that ensues around them. This is a major strength of Mel Brooks's films in general, where he seemed to have all his actors play their parts as though they were dramatic people thrust into silly plots, but it's also a major strength of movies like "Airplane!" or "Hot Fuzz" and why they both work so well. They both take the tropes of disaster or action movies and poke every single hole into them that they can, exploiting every nitpick you've ever had about both, while playing their plots incredibly straight and with a lot of obvious love poured into it to let you know they aren't taking themselves too seriously either. Mel Brooks only ever did parodies of genres he loved, citing that as the reason he never did any parodies of slasher films during their heyday in the '80s, and that love is present throughout "Young Frankenstein." It's easy to assign him all the credit, and he rightfully deserves a heap of credit for its success, but people tend to neglect that it was Gene Wilder who shared this love of the '30s 'Frankenstein' films and who came up with the premise itself. The both of them painstakingly went to great lengths to achieve the same quality that the '30s films did, down to buying much of the same props from the '31 laboratory set and filming the movie entirely in black and white, something that studios were reluctant to do back in 1974. Even if for some ungodly reason this movie doesn't tickle your funny bone, you have to admit the production quality is astonishing. The makeup, the use of shadows and lighting, the cinematography, this film reeks of '30s filmmaking and you could easily mistake it for a film that came out during that decade for how much it looks and plays like one. And of course that only serves to make the comedy even funnier.
It's really hard to talk about what makes a film funny, I think. Mostly because comedy, much like horror, is one of the more subjective genres of storytelling out there. Everybody's gonna have a different sense of humor and no two people are gonna ever gonna have exact tastes in comedy. In a general sense though, a lot of it hinges on the performances and how darn likable they all are. I realized this as I was watching this in that dark, crowded theater for what must have been my eighty-millionth viewing of this movie (but first time in a movie theater, always worth the price of admission for that), that this movie does make you care about these characters the way it would if this were a serious take on if Victor's grandson carried on his work. When the Creature is locked up or being chased by the angry villagers you want to see him get out of it okay, you want to see Frederick succeed in taming the Creature too. You also buy the sincerity in Frederick as he proudly proclaims he's going to teach his creation to be civilized because everything in this movie is what Gene Wilder was his whole career; Genuine.
It's hard to be farcical and genuine, but if it was a Mel Brooks film you could always count on it being both at some point. Where even for all the silly moments and crass humor you could still get a semblance of human kindness or sentimentality in there too. You get it from Frederick's impassioned speech to his creation and later from the Creature's plea to the townsfolk to look upon him and his creator with empathy. And that, to me, is a great reflection of why this movie is what it is and why it's so beloved to so many people. It's stupid, plenty of the jokes are pretty simple and you can probably get an idea of where it's going if you're familiar with the original 'Frankenstein' series. But at the same time it's also clever and genuine in its love for the genre and how it invites you to laugh along with it when you see the blind old hermit accidentally burn the Creature's thumb or how Frederick stabs himself with a scalpel at the end of a long tirade about his disinterest in his grandfather's work (or as he puts it). It's all played for dumb laughs, but the majority of those dumb laughs come from really clever send ups to the classic films and some stellar performances from a cast of stellar comedians.
I was probably ten or eleven when I first saw this movie, probably my first Mel Brooks movie in general (of his filmography it's probably the safest to show a kid around that age, though I saw "Blazing Saddles" when I was twelve, haha), and it's hard to pick a top favorite among some of his highest works like this, 'Saddles,' "High Anxiety" or "The Producers," but this one will probably hold the highest sentimental value to me for a number of reasons. For being the first of his many great films I ever saw, for introducing me to the other great talents in it, and for Gene Wilder himself giving his all as he always did in every film he was involved with. "Young Frankenstein" is clearly a labor of love, a fact that you need only look at every interview anyone who was involved with it has ever given to confirm, and every bit of that love shines through all the homages and jokes in its 105 minute run time. If you've never seen this movie before there's never been a better time to check it out. While I'm not sure if Fathom will run the screening for it again (if demand is great enough they might), the 40th anniversary Blu-ray is available now as well as a new book about the story of the making of the film, titled, Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, with plenty of behind the scenes photos and stories all about, aptly, the making of the film. It's definitely something I'll be adding to my want list for Christmas this year. Until then, I recommend just seeing this movie. Maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time, it's always worth it in my opinion. Rest in peace, Mr. Wilder. Thank you for always being so insanely genuine in everything you did.