Monday, December 11, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

How about that for a movie title? If you aren't big into the awards buzz like I am, your reaction to this review title or perhaps seeing this movie poster at your local theater may have been the same reaction that I had several months ago when I first heard of this: "What the heck? That's an interesting title for a movie." It definitely grabs your attention due to both the length and the uniqueness of the title. At least it did for me, which is why I've had it on my radar ever since. When it started actually being screened, that's when it definitely had my attention. It won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, of which the previous five winners have all gone on to be Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, those five movies being "La La Land," "Room," "The Imitation Game," "12 Years a Slave" and "Silver Linings Playbook." Since that win, it's gone on to get a handful of nominations for each major awards ceremonies, including most recently getting six Golden Globe nominations. With all that in mind and given that there's no clear front-runner at the Oscars right now, I confidently predict that this is one of perhaps three or four movies that has a good shot at WINNING Best Picture at the Oscars. And I personally feel that this would be a well-deserved win.

With how descriptive that title is, the general premise of this movie a bit self-explanatory. It centers around three billboard that are put up outside Ebbing, Missouri. Shocker, I know. And where is Ebbing, Missouri? Well, that's actually a fictional town, as is the story that goes along with this. No, this movie isn't based on a true story of events that took place near a town called Ebbing, Missouri, but it feels real enough once you know what's written on these billboards. "Raped while dying," "And Still No Arrests" and "How come, Chief Willoughby?" are the messages on the billboards. Yeah. While this specific story is fictional, the themes discussed in this movie are very real to a lot of people around the world. Frances McDormand plays a rightfully upset lady named Mildred who, according to her words in the movie, feels that the police are too busy killing black people to focus on what's really important, like finding the person who abducted and killed her teenage daughter several months back. She feels that these actions are a good way of getting their attention so that they can refocus their efforts. But of course Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, isn't happy about this, so we have a movie centered around Mildred vs. the police with the town taking their sides.

My biggest concern going into this movie was the politics behind the movie. Police around the country have been under very high scrutiny for very good reasons over the last several years, sparking countless riots and protests surrounding the mistreatment and unauthorized shootings by police, especially when it comes to black people, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. With the description that I gave you in this previous paragraph in mind, it seemed to me like this was going to be a movie that was going to come out firing at all cylinders against police and how corrupt they are. If that was the case, it would make sense as to why this movie is getting such high praise because critics and awards voters alike love powerful, relevant films delving into important subject matter. What really surprised me here is that this is not really the case. Instead of being a fiery, one-sided movie attacking police, this is a more objective, well-rounded movie that tells this story from all angles. The moral of the story seems to be that when things like this happen, life really sucks for everyone involved. The movie presents a sense of unfortunate awkwardness with a lot of grey area on both sides as we dive deeper and deeper.

In showing this, we start from Mildred's perspective and you immediately feel bad for her. I can't imagine what it would feel like to have your teenage daughter kidnapped, raped and murdered. Even though her actions are a bit questionable, all she wants is justice and a sense of finality to help her have peace regarding this whole situation. That's an easy side to jump on and support, thus when she starts attacking the police, you're immediately on her side in this attack. How dare the police not doing anything, right? And you feel that way until you're introduced to Chief Willoughby. There's a lot of things going on with him that I won't reveal, but the gist of everything is that he's a nice, honest person who is doing his absolute best as police chief to provide justice. He represents the type of police officer that is easy to love and care about. Yes, despite how much fire police have been under recently, there are a lot of officers that are fantastic individuals who are great at doing their job. In this movie, Chief Willoughby represents those officers. Thus instead of being a one-sided attack towards police, you're able to see things equally from both perspectives. You understand why Mildred makes her decisions and you also understand why Chief Willoughby is upset at those decisions.

The movie gets even more layered than that when we dive into all of our side characters. We have Lucas Hedges playing Mildred's son. He's equally upset at the fact that his sister is dead, but he doesn't like what his mom is doing to solve everything, making for a very intense family situation. We have Caleb Landry Jones playing the kid at the office who rented the billboards to Mildred who now is thrown into the middle of this fight when he was just trying to do his job. We have plenty of other people who do support Mildred in what she's doing. And we have Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon who represents the opposite side of the police force as Chief Willoughby. Yes, there are a lot of police officers that I do feel bad for because they are being unfairly judged and looked down up due to the actions of others when they did absolutely nothing wrong. But then you have those officers that are giving the rest a bad name. That's what Sam Rockwell is here for. He's the bad cop that you really want to hate during this movie with a lot of things that he says and does. Yet his arc in the movie is quite fascinating, proving yet again that you'd be wrong to paint everything as a complete black and white picture. There's a lot of gray in life that we sometimes choose to overlook.

As such, this movie becomes a very layered, complex film that I found to be absolutely fascinating. You can look into every one of these actors and characters and do an in-depth analysis about who they are, what they represent and why they made the choices they made. It's honestly a very interesting character study. Carrying this movie forward is this fantastic ensemble with top-notch acting all around. The absolute phenom from the group is Frances McDormand who gives one of the best acting performances in recent memory. I'm not going to declare her my personal favorite just to be fair because there are several of the major players in this best actress race that I have not seen, but I walked out of the theater thinking that we should just give her that trophy because it is very well deserved. As far as who else deserves nominations, Sam Rockwell is the one who is getting all the love and, when push comes to shove, I would probably agree with that. But I also think we got great performances from Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones and even Abbie Cornish who I think would be worthy candidates. It's one of those situations where I'd say giving this a Best Ensemble Cast nomination would be most fitting, but that category doesn't exist at the Oscars.

The other thing that really makes this a unique movie is the dark comedy. You wouldn't think that a movie about rape, murder and police brutality would be funny, or should be funny, but this movie had me dying of laughter throughout. My whole screening was even cracking up. This was mostly due to Frances McDormand's character. She is such a crazy, intense lady that she does and says so many shocking things that will just have you rolling over. Yet the movie does a perfect job of balancing that humor with the intense, dark drama. One moment you are busting up with laughter and often the very next moment you are punched in the gut with something that comes out of nowhere that cuts deep to the core. This is a very tricky balance to find in movies. Most of the time when I'm watching a very dark film, having comedy flying out of the gate left and right would feel tonally inconsistent. I don't know how "Three Billboards" did it or why it works so well, but it does. And it's one of those situations where you have to experience it for yourself to know why. Because of this, the other nomination that I desperately hope this gets at the Oscars is a best screenplay nod for Martin McDonagh. A directing nod would be cool, too. But a screenplay nod is a must.

The biggest complaint that I have for "Three Billboards" is that they kinda wrote themselves into a corner. When you start the movie, you have the introduction with Mildred putting up her billboards and the town going into chaos because of it and Chief Willoughby approaching Mildred to try to solve this issue, but then after that you wonder where it's going to go for the next 90-100 minutes as it has nearly a two hour run time. The journey the movie takes you on is a rather crazy one. Believe me, I've only scratched the surface when it comes to telling you about this movie. There are so many twists and turns that I didn't see coming. Every time you think you know what's going to happen next, you get a pretty strong curveball, thus making for a great movie that is impossible to predict. The reason I say they wrote themselves into a corner is because after so many twists and turns, I'm not sure they quite knew how to end the movie. With what they did do, I felt slightly unsatisfied and I really want to say why, but I'm going to leave that a mystery in this review. But outside that, I was completely engrossed with this movie. It's a crazy ride that is absolutely hilarious, yet at the same time a dark tale that shines a light on the unfortunate honesty of life. I'm awarding the movie a 9/10.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Disaster Artist Review

The 2003 movie "The Room," not to be confused with the 2015 movie "Room" (a great movie), is a movie that was written, directed, produced and starred Tommy Wiseau. While Tommy genuinely thought he was making a good movie that was even Oscar-worthy, the actual result was not so pretty as it has been notoriously labeled by many as the worst movie ever made. In fact, it is such a bad movie that, through time, it has gained a huge cult following of people who absolutely love it in an "it's so bad, it's good" sort of way. Some people even will go as far to say that it's the best "it's so bad, it's good" movie that has ever been made. A truly unique spectacle that needs to be seen to be believed. I will admit at this point that I have not seen "The Room" from beginning to end, but for someone who hasn't seen the movie, I certainly know a lot about it. I have watched many reviews of the movie on YouTube from people who have detailed the movie, I have watched several of the individual clips and I know many of the quotes from the movie really well. So I was fairly excited to see a movie that was about the making of "The Room," especially since director and star James Franco, an actor whose work I've always enjoyed, seemed extremely dedicated to this project.

"The Disaster Artist" is a movie that is based on the personal account of Greg Sestero, Tommy's best friend. Some time after "The Room" became a huge cult hit, Greg wrote down his story that detailed this in the book titled "The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made." This is a movie that is hilariously inspiring in a unique sort of way. Franco takes the time to reward fans of "The Room" by showcasing the strange, quirkiness of Tommy and how he came to make this. We get a peek into the behind-the-scenes work that went into many of the famous clips of the movie, thus providing a hilarious romp that caused me and most of the people in my screening to die with laughter. Thus a lot of credit has to be given to Franco as a director for his brilliant crafting of this genius comedy. On top of that, we also have to give Franco a lot of credit for his brilliant acting portrayal of Tommy Wiseau as what made this movie work so well is that Franco did a nearly perfect job of impersonating Tommy to the point where it looked and felt like we were watching Tommy himself in this movie as opposed to a Tommy impersonation of which we've seen so many times. Franco had his voice and mannerisms down to a perfection.

However, it's worth mentioning that "The Disaster Artist" is much more than just a hilarious movie that makes fun of this really bad movie and how it came to be, it's also a very moving film that will inspire you to chase your dreams regardless of how impossible those dreams seem to be. The thing that makes Tommy such an interesting character is that we really don't know much about him. No one really knows his age, where he's from or how he got so much money. Because, yeah, it is reported that he spent $6 million to make this movie and it doesn't seem like it was a big deal for him. When people ask him these questions in order to learn more about him, he'll answer them by telling what is obviously not the truth or perhaps simply partial truth. With no family around and no friends that know his true backstory, much of what we know about Tommy is more speculation than actual facts given how secretive he is. But it seems likely that he was born somewhere in Europe around the 1950's before coming to America for perhaps a better life. And how did he get so much money? He'll claim that it's because of the businesses he set up in San Francisco, but not even Greg Sestero feels that this is likely. A family inheritance? Drug laundering? It's all a big mystery.

The other thing that makes Tommy unique is that his brain simply works differently than other people. That's probably the safest way to put it rather than speculating as to what potential disorder he might have that leads him to act the way he does. What seems logical to most people just isn't for Tommy. He does his own thing. When you watch "The Room," everything in the movie is just so strange, but it all made sense to Tommy. He genuinely thought he made an Oscar-worthy film. Thus when "The Disaster Artist" explores the making of this movie, you can understand why so many people on set were so confused and easily frustrated. What in the heck was Tommy doing? What was this movie that they were making? Why was he treating everyone so poorly? Many people tried to reason with him, but it didn't work. When Tommy had his mind set on certain things, there often was no changing his mind, so you just had to roll with it. And given the lack of experience that many of them had with filmmaking, they just kinda went with it, assuming he knew what he was doing, especially given the confidence he had, when in reality Tommy was incompetent when it came to this. But he didn't care. This was his dream and he was going to follow his dream no matter what.

That's the big inspiration that one can take from this. Tommy didn't have any experience in filmmaking. Given how differently his brain worked, this was probably not something he was really capable of doing. But what he did have was a dream and the determined will to follow that dream no matter what. When film agencies refused to hire him or cast him for certain roles, he pressed forward and decided to make his own film because he refused to fail this dream. And through all the obstacles that came his way, he was successful in achieving his dream. He made his movie. Even though it didn't quite get the reception that he was hoping for given the lack of quality present, it eventually became hugely successful in its own right with millions of people around the world falling in love with it. That's quite the success story. If Tommy, who is completely incompetent at making a quality film, is able to follow his dream anyways and be successful in spite the odds, then whatever your dream is, you can make that come true as well. Regardless of how incapable you think you are or how unqualified you might be, if you have enough will and determination to follow your dream, you will be successful. That's what makes this story and this movie so special.

That said, I did notice that there weren't a whole lot of surprises in this movie. I don't know whether to blame the marketing for this or the movie itself, but perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. If you've seen the trailers for the movie, you've seen the whole movie. Every key moment in the movie was included in the trailers. That was disappointing for me because it would've been nice if they had waited to reveal some of those moments for the movie itself. While I think it's unfair to criticize a movie because of what the trailer did, I also think that part of the problem here is that they didn't go into very much depth beyond what the trailers showed. They breezed through the filming of the movie much faster than I wanted them to, focusing only on the major highlights that we all knew about anyways. I wanted them to slow down and take their time. We also began the movie rather abruptly and wrapped it up in a nice pretty bow in the end. There was a lot of story to tell here and they consolidated into 1 hour 44 minutes while it probably would've been justified to spend a bit more time on it, especially when it comes to that ending which took several elements of this story and combined them into one big moment instead of choosing to add another act onto the film.

As is, I do think this is a solid film that is a great companion piece to "The Room," as it adds a lot of detail and context to this unique experience that you'll have if you choose to watch the movie. Yet perhaps a TV mini-series may have been able to do even more justice to this or maybe a documentary? Or, you know, one could actually go read the book that Greg Sestero wrote that actually does go into a lot more detail as one would expect. I also would make a guess that this movie does cater significantly towards people who are either a fan of or aware of Tommy Wiseau and "The Room." If you have no idea who this guy is or this movie he made, yet you decide to jump right into "The Disaster Artist" anyways, I could imagine that you might feel like you are missing something like one of those moments where a group of friends are laughing about an inside joke that you aren't clued in on. Yet the story of following your dreams is universal enough that you would probably enjoy the movie anyways. But I think at least being aware of "The Room" would really help in this instance. In contrast, that also means if you are a huge fan of "The Room" and you love Tommy Wiseau, "The Disaster Artist" becomes a must-see. My grade for the movie is an 8/10.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Wonder Review

We've had a lot of movies with "Wonder" in the title this year. The obvious one is "Wonder Woman," but there's also been "Wonder Wheel," "Wonderstruck" and "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women." And now we have "Wonder." You can say that it's been a wonderful year. Full of wonder. OK, I'm done. "Wonder" is a movie that came out at the same time as "Justice League," so right before Thanksgiving. After watching the trailers, it looked like an overly-sentimental movie that we've seen a hundred times before. While I'm usually nicer to movies like this than some, there were so many other movies that I wanted to get to as well as this holiday called Thanksgiving that I felt like celebrating that this one wasn't super high on my priority list. Thus is why I'm a few weeks late. But what caught my attention with this movie is it's box office performance. It had a surprisingly good opening weekend and it's held remarkably well in the ensuing weeks. As if everyone had the same mindset as me, yet slowly started to realize that this is actually a movie worth paying attention to. So there I was in a sold-out showing of "Wonder" on a Tuesday night nearly three weeks after its release. And my screening gave this a round of applause at the end. I joined in.

So yes, "Wonder" is the movie about the kid with facial deformities who has to now go to school for the very first time. It's based on a popular book that I have not read, so that's as far as we're going with that conversation. If you're a fan of the book and you want to know how this movie compares to the book, you'll have to talk to someone else about that. I'm here to just talk about the movie that I saw. The kid's name in this movie is August "Auggie" Pullman and he was born with these facial deformities. He's understandably self-conscious about how he looks and what other people are thinking about him, given their constant stares, so he spends a lot of time wearing an astronaut helmet that would probably make Daft Punk proud. Because of this, his parents have chosen to home school him for most of his young life so that he can be protected and avoid public scrutiny. But come time for fifth grade, his parents come to the realization that they can't hide him from the world forever, so they make the tough decision that he needs to go to a public school. The longer they avoid this, the harder it will be for him to integrate into normal life. So Auggie agrees that he will honor their wishes and give it a go, which makes them all nervous despite them feeling that this is the right choice.

For the first part of this movie, this plays out exactly how you might think, but the reason why I was so invested in this is due to the performances of our main characters, namely Jacob Tremblay as Auggie. I've been doing my absolute best to shout this kid's name from the rooftops ever since I saw him in "Room" in 2015. In that movie he played a kid who had never been exposed to the outside world due to certain situations. When he finally was, he reacted in the exact way that a young kid probably would, which is why I was so blown away by the performance. I've rarely seen a child actor act so perfectly in a movie before. Each ensuing movie that I've seen him in, he's given equally as impressive performances in that he becomes the exact character that the director needs him to be and this is no different. He's acting as a young, self-conscious kid with a deformed face that has to experience the real world by himself for perhaps the first time and Jacob Tremblay acts in a manner that makes me believe the makeup or prosthetics that he's wearing for this movie is his actual face and that he's acting based on personal experience. Thus I gained a deep, emotional attachment to his character right away and I was just as nervous as he was walking into the school.

However, it wasn't just Jacob Tremblay that I was nervous about. Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts play his parents and both of them gave performances that are better than anything I've seen from them in recent years. They are the absolute perfect parents for him as they give him just the right amount of love and attention to make sure he feels wanted and accepted. Thus when they decided that they are going to let him into the real world, I was equally nervous for them. How are they going to handle this. What if Auggie hates school? What if he's bullied? What if he doesn't fit in? This is a very delicate situation for them. What are they going to say to Auggie or do to help him? I'm not a parent myself, but I am an uncle to many nieces and nephews, thus I know that it's a tough responsibility as an adult to figure out what the best way to handle certain situations. Thus I was on the edge of my seat for this first act of the movie as we saw Auggie going to school. When the principle, Mr. Tushman, played excellently by Mandy Patinkin (Jason Gideon from "Criminal Minds" and Inigo Montoya from "The Princess Bride") treats him perfectly, I cheered. When certain kids acted poorly, I cringed. When other kids treated him well, I cheered again. This was a very emotional ride for me.

As we were going along on this ride, I started to ask myself the question that I had asked after watching the trailers. What is this movie going to do to set it apart from all the other movies? I began to imagine all the potential outcomes for this movie and I didn't see any of those outcomes as being truly unique and special. But then the movie hit me with a curveball that I wasn't expecting. We stopped. We went back in time. Then we told the same story again, but from the perspective of Auggie's older sister. The "normal" looking one. The trailers didn't clue me into this at all, thus it's almost a minor spoiler, but I do feel the need to mention in because if you had the same mindset as me going in, I feel the need to explain to you what it is about this movie that sets it apart. Most movies like this will keep telling the story from the main character's perspective, but I don't know how many of them do exactly what this does by letting us in on what everyone else is going through. Because, yeah, the older sister looks normal and thus doesn't stand out. But that's the thing. Her parents have spent so much time focusing on Auggie, that they forget about her. Not intentionally, of course. They're still good parents to her. But on her first day of school, she feels lonely and lost.

The movie ends up being just as much about this sister as it is about Auggie and thus I have to give equal credit to Izabela Vidovic for also making this movie work. But she's not the only other person this movie focuses on. We end up telling this story from multiple perspectives, thus the underlying message isn't simply saying that we should be kind to people who look differently than us, the message is really saying that we should be kind to everyone. Regardless of who you are, everyone has issues that they are dealing with and challenges in their life that they have to overcome. Yes, we should be kind to people who are different than us, but we should also be kind to our friends, family members, classmates and other associates who, on the surface, seem like nothing is wrong with them. That really got to me. If there is a bully in school, have you ever thought about why they are being a bully? If your friend does something you don't appreciate, have you are thought about why it is they might've done that? If you have a sibling that you think has no challenges or issues they are facing, have you ever thought that maybe they actually might be having troubles that just aren't showing up on the surface? Thus is the human experience and that's what this movie is all about.

It actually took me until the end credits to figure out what the best comparison for this movie was. Initially I was thinking maybe "A Monster Calls" from last year or perhaps "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," which is the other movie from director Stephen Chbosky. While "Wonder" is equally as good, if not better than those two, it's good for completely different reasons. But at the end of the credits I noticed that this came from Walden Media and immediately the light bulb went off in my head. They're the production company that did "Holes" and "Bridge to Terabithia." That's the company that "Wonder" belongs in. Three very different stories, yes. But three family friendly movies that teach powerful lessons and all have huge emotional payoffs at the end. Because, yeah, everything in "Wonder" had built up so perfectly that when we got to the end, this movie gave me the Pixar treatment. For some reason, I'm not the type of person where tears roll down my face very often, and they didn't here. But I certainly felt this one. I think I was more emotional at the end of this movie than I have been all year. And that's with "Coco" in mind. If you are the type where tears roll down your face, you might might need to bring a few boxes of tissues to this movie.

Going into this movie, I didn't think that this would be a movie that I would label as a must see. When the trailers showed, I wasn't sure it was even a movie that I would see in theaters. Even after the positive reception and the surprising box office, I thought that this would be a good movie, but not necessarily a great one. Thus I can confidently say after seeing this movie that this is one of the surprise movies of the year, if not THE surprise movie of the year. Sure, you can nitpick certain elements of the story or the actions of certain characters. Perhaps you can claim that this has too pretty of a bow wrapped around it. I was listening to a lot of reviewers who were pointing out minor things that bothered them and I could totally see where they were coming from, but none of those things really bothered me enough for me to feel the need to point them out. I think this is an absolutely excellent film with a powerful message that just might stick with you long after you see it. Given that this is only PG, this is also a movie that you can take your kids to and in doing so, it just might be the movie that teaches them the most important lessons about how to treat others around them. It absolutely is a must see and I am giving "Wonder" a very strong 9.5/10.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Movie Preview: December 2017

After quite the box office lull from August through October (with Stephen King's "IT" being the only bright spot), a packed November got 2017 back on track as it became the first November since 2013 to cross $1 billion. It's also the first month to do so since July and the fourth month to hit $1 billion this year (following March, June and July). This proves that the box office isn't dead. People are still more than willing to make their way out to the theaters. They will simply wait for some quality films before they do so. Leading the way in that market were our two comic book juggernauts, "Thor: Ragnorok" and "Justice League," with the former outgrossing the latter by a a surprisingly large margin. "Coco," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Wonder" "Daddy's Home 2" and "A Bad Mom's Christmas" all rounded out the month quite nicely as they all managed to please their target audiences. And now we move onto the final month of the year, which will be a mix of awards contenders and Christmas blockbusters, which will of course be led by "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Our latest Star Wars adventure certainly won't be the only movie vying for people's attention, though. And given past history, there's a solid chance they all live peaceably together this Christmas season, so let's dive in!

December 1st - 3rd-

While there will be plenty of options for everyone around Christmas, studios have decided to wait till right before Christmas to release them all as there were no wide releases this weekend, thus is why I felt no urgency to get this out before the weekend ended. There are two potential reasons for this lack of new wide releases. First, Christmas is a very lucrative season for the box office. Everyone wants to go to the movies during the holidays and a lot of big movies can co-exist because of this. Meanwhile, early December is not quite as lucrative as many people still have work and school to deal with. So Hollywood waits. The other reason is that no studio wants to open their movie right before "The Last Jedi." While the last two years have proven that opening at the same time as or shortly after "Rogue One" and "The Force Awakens" has worked out just fine, opening in the weeks before might be considered cinematic suicide as any movie will be guaranteed to be wiped clean by a Star Wars opening weekend. So no studio even tried this year. This all led to our top five being the exact same as the previous weekend with Pixar's "Coco" leading the way.

However, there were a few major limited releases to talk about that will be expanding throughout the month. The winner of the bunch of them, in terms of per-theater averages, was Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. The movie's per-theater average came in right in between the $91,109 average of "Lady Bird" and the $80,542 average of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" as "The Shape of Water" scored an average of $83,400. All three came in behind the $103,233 average of "Call Me by Your Name" as all four of these movies seem guaranteed to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. With no obvious front-runner at the moment, it appears to be anyone's game. For Guillermo, he's probably had a lot of fun recently with the likes of "Pacific Rim" and "Crimson Peak," but "The Shape of Water" will essentially be a return to form, giving the Academy an opportunity to redeem themselves after not including "Pan's Labyrinth" in the best picture race in 2007. "The Shape of Water" looks to be a very layered film with relevant themes that centers on the relationship between a woman and a creature that she discovers as a part of a laboratory experiment in the Cold War era. Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg star.

While I mentioned that "The Shape of Water" was the winner of the bunch in terms of per-theater average, The Disaster Artist was the winner of the limited releases in terms of actual box office gross as it nearly cracked the top 10 with $1.2 million. The difference was that "The Disaster Artist" opened in 19 theaters as opposed to the two theaters that "The Shape of Water" opened in. The per-theater average of "The Disaster Artist" was $64,254. It also looks like it will be expanding faster as it's schedule to add around 800 theaters this next weekend. "The Disaster Artist" sees James Franco directing and starring as Tommy Wiseau, who is known for making the notoriously bad film "The Room" in 2003 (not to be confused with 2015's "Room"). "The Room" is such a bad film that it's gained status as a cult classic due to some claiming that it's one of the best "so bad it's good" films. Rather than spending 103 minutes making fun of Wiseau and his awful movie, "The Disaster Artist" instead takes the time to tell Wiseau's story as an individual whose brain simply works differently than your average human being. While not guaranteed for best picture, "The Disaster Artist" certainly looks to get love in some categories, with Franco for best actor being its best bet.

The third major limited release is certainly the lesser of the three both in terms of box office and reaction it's received thus far and that would be our yearly Woody Allen film Wonder Wheel. It's rather impressive that Woody Allen has made at least one film a year from 1982 to today. That filmography goes back even further to his directorial debut in 1966, although he wasn't quite as perfect in hitting every single year during those early. With such a high volume of films put out, the question every year becomes is this an on year or an off year. Unfortunately it's been more quantity over quality for Woody in his later years as "Wonder Wheel" appears to be yet another off year with a current score of 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a per-theater average this weekend of $28,111 from five theaters. Which isn't bad, but leaves much to be desired for compared to our other Oscar hopefuls. "Wonder Wheel" is set at Coney Island in the 1950's and stars Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi as a couple whose relationship is a bit rocky, which causes Kate to start seeing a lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake, who at the same time is also having a relationship with the husband's daughter.

Finally, it's worth noting that Titanic is in theaters yet again for it's 20th anniversary, giving it a chance to add to its already huge box office total, although it only opened in 87 theaters this time around with a total of $415,000, which equates to a per-theater average of just $4,770. With a small theater count and box office total, this probably won't be around for too long, which is OK because these anniversary releases usually only last a few weeks anyways.

December 8th - 10th-

While the first weekend of December had no new wide releases, the second weekend of December only has one new wide release and it's a small one from Broad Green Pictures called Just Getting Started, more proof that Hollywood as a whole is avoiding these first two weekends for reasons discussed previously. "Just Getting Started" is an action comedy and stars Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones as two rivals who have to put their rivalry aside for the time being in order to fend off a mob hit, thus giving us shades of "Going in Style" from earlier this year or even "RED" from a few years back. All three seem to be movies with older actors having a bit of fun in their old age, led by Morgan Freeman. In terms of it's box office potential, "Just Getting Started" probably doesn't have a chance, given the lack of marketing, to get anywhere close to the $90.3 million that "RED" made in 2010. A more realistic ceiling might be "Going in Style," which opened to $11.9 million this year, finishing with $45.0 million. Although it's worth noting that this is Broad Green Pictures' fifth release and the previous four made between $5.3 million and $8.2 million on opening weekend, so that's probably a good range. It should be enough to sneak into the top five.

The most notable limited release this weekend will be the limited release of Neon's I, Tonya, which is geared to give a lot of awards love to lead actress Margot Robbie as figure skater Tonya Harding. On the surface it might not seem like a movie about a figure skater would be of any interest, but there's a lot below the surface that makes the story of Tonya Harding an interesting one. In 1991, Harding was the U.S. champion in figure skating as well as the World Championship silver medalist. She was also a two-time Olympian and two-time Skate America champion. The drama with her comes in 1994 where she was involved in a scandal where someone was hired to break her opponent's leg, which is the focus of "I, Tonya." The movie was the runner-up for the people's choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, behind the winner "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and has also been nominated at the Gotham Awards and Film Independent Spirit Awards, with many more nominations sure to come. In addition to Margot Robbie getting a lot of love in the lead actress categories, Allison Janney is also getting a lot of love for supporting actress.

December 15th - 17th-

And now it's time for the juggernaut this month as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the most highly anticipated movie of the year, as well as the movie pretty much guaranteed to make the most money, will finally hit theaters. After a quick break last year to tell the story of how plans for the Death Star got stolen with "Rogue One," essentially Episode 3.9, "The Last Jedi" continues our main saga of Star Wars films as it is set to pick up right where "The Force Awakens" left off with Rey handing the lightsaber to Luke Skywalker. Rian Johnson, known mainly for "Looper" and several well-liked episodes of "Breaking Bad," is taking over the directing duties this time around. Lucasfilm apparently liked his work so much in this movie that they have already entrusted him with a brand new Star Wars trilogy set somewhere in a different corner of the galaxy. As far as this movie goes, Johnson claimed a few nights ago on Jimmy Kimmel that he always saw the title of "The Last Jedi" as singular and referring specifically to Luke Skywalker, which sparked debate online due to the fact that "The Last Jedi" translates as plural in many countries. Regardless of whether or not Johnson was being truthful or trying to throw audiences off, it's safe to say that we can expect a lot of Luke Skywalker in this one as well as a darker direction than we normally get for Star Wars.

As far as how much money "The Last Jedi" will make, it's worth noting that "A New Hope," "The Phantom Menace" and "The Force Awakens" were all event films. "A New Hope" in 1977 was Star Wars exploding onto the scene whereas "The Phantom Menace" and "The Force Awakens"  were Star Wars returning to theaters after a lengthy hiatus. With both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, none of the ensuing sequels were able to match the box office total of the first movie of each respective trilogy. Thus it wouldn't be fair to expect "The Last Jedi" to match or top the $936 million domestic total of "The Force Awakens." If "The Last Jedi" were to follow the trends of both previous trilogies, "The Empire Strikes Back" fell 31.9 percent while "Attack of the Clones" fell 29.9 percent. Using those two percentages as a high and low, that would mean "The Last Jedi" gets between $637 million and $663 million. If it bucked the trend and fell softer, a 20 percent drop would equate to $748 million. Regardless of what happens, anything above $600 million should be considered a win. For future reference, the final movies in each trilogy both increased from 20 to 25 percent over the middle chapter. That's a range of $768 million to $834 million for Episode IX.

The only movie choosing to directly challenge "The Last Jedi" by opening on the same opening weekend is the latest animated film from Blue Sky, that of Ferdinand. While it may seem like a foolish choice to do so, counter-programming a Star Wars film with a family-friendly movie for the young kids has worked just fine the last few years. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip" pulled in a decent $85.9 million domestic total while running at the same time as "The Force Awakens" while Illumination's "Sing" pulled in an excellent $270 million after starting just a week after "Rogue One." In fact, "Sing" ended up topping the final gross of "Moana," which opened just a month earlier. So "Ferdinand" is in good position if it manages to capture the attention of family audiences during Christmas. It's only competition will be families trying to catch-up on "Coco" during Christmas or if they choose to take their kids to "Jumanji," which opens less than a week later. "Ferdinand" is the story of a bull who isn't very good at being bull, but attempts to do his best to become a better bull. Outside the last Ice Age movie, every one of Blue Sky's movies has fallen somewhere in the $100 million range.

December 20th- 

I normally separate these by weekend, but everything around Christmas is a bit jumbled, so it made more sense in my mind to separate it by specific release date this time around. There are two movies that will be opening on Wednesday December 20, with the most notable one being Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Much like when the new "Ghostbusters" movie was announced, the internet went crazy in a negative way upon the announcement of another "Jumanji" movie. The original "Jumanji," starring the late legendary actor Robin Williams, is a sacred piece of nostalgia for many 90's kids. How dare they remake it! That's what many said, anyways. However, unlike the new "Ghostbusters" movie, when the trailers actually dropped for this new "Jumanji," the internet was actually rather shocked at the fact that it looked like a good movie. Since then, mostly positive buzz has followed to the point where this looks to be a successful bit of counter-programming. Instead of being a straight-up remake, "Welcome to the Jungle" will be more of a sequel as it's set in the modern day with four kids being sucked into a video game instead of a board game. When they get sucked in, they become Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan while having to survive in the jungle.

Another popular trend has been the rival of live-action musicals during the holiday season. The latest in that trend is the new musical The Greatest Showman. Previous holiday musicals have included film adaptations of "Les Mis" in 2012 and "Into the Woods" in 2014 with last year's "La La Land" being an original musical. "The Greatest Showman" is also of the original variety and actually includes some of the same songwriters from "La La Land." The musical is centered around the story of P.T. Barnum as he went from nothing to creating a worldwide sensation by inventing the show business. The movie has a rather large cast that is led by Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and is accompanied by the likes of Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Efron and Zendaya to name just a few. As you might expect, the movie is loaded with all kinds of performers who all look to put on quite the show for audiences. Initially this was seen as a potential Oscar front runner as "La La Land" and "Les Mis" both did rather well on the awards front, but recently it has lost a bit of steam with the awards crowd as the marketing appears to be targeting general audiences instead, which is totally fine and should be able to attract a decent amount of people who love musicals.

December 22nd- 

Two days after "Jumanji" and "The Greatest Showman" hit the market, four more wide releases debut, making for a total of six new movies right before Christmas, and eight if you count "The Last Jedi" and "Ferdinand" from the weekend before. Leading this specific crowd on Friday proper will be Pitch Perfect 3. "Pitch Perfect" was a surprise sleeper hit back in 2012. In only opened with $5.1 million in 335 theaters, but positive reviews and word of mouth spread quickly as it finished with $65 million, a total that was topped in just one weekend with "Pitch Perfect 2" in 2015, as the sequel opened to $69.2 million, finishing with $184.3 million. Now the Barden Bellas are back for one final ride... supposedly. It's hard to believe Hollywood when they claim something is the final chapter, especially when it takes practically no effort to come up with a plot. But that's what the marketing is pushing here as the girls reunite for an overseas tour of Glee-style A Cappella music. Most of the girls are returning again for this "final" movie, but the franchise will get yet another new director as Elizabeth Banks, who was originally slated to return, dropped out for scheduling conflicts and has been replaced by Trish Sie, director of "Step Up All In" and some OK Go music videos.

There's usually at least one adult-targeted comedy that comes out during the holiday season and this year's version is Father Figures. The movie stars Owen Wilson and Ed Helms as two twin brothers who learn that their mother, played by Glenn Close, has been lying to them about their father for their entire life. She had previously told them their father has passed away, but now she reveals that their father is alive, but she actually has no idea who she is, so the two brothers go on a road trip to find their father. Potential father figures for Wilson and Helms are played by J.K. Simmons, Katt Williams, Terry Bradshaw, Ving Rhames and Christopher Walken. It's hard to predict how well comedies like this will do as some that you think might be hits become duds while others come out of nowhere to be mega hits. As an attempted comparison, though, our last two adult comedies during Christmas were "Why Him?" from last year and "Sisters" from two years ago, which made $60.3 million and $87.0 million respectively. The director here is Lawrence Sher in his directorial debut. He is known best as the cinematographer for the Hangover trilogy as well as other similar movies.

In what I'm guessing will be more of a moderate release as opposed to a major wide release, we have Downsizing, the latest movie from director Alexander Payne. Most recently, Payne wrote and directed the 2013 film "Nebraska," which was nominated for six Oscars, all in major categories including best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best actor. Payne has also found Oscar love with movies such as "Sideways," "The Descendants" and "Election." So it seemed like a good bet for him to find more love, especially with "Downsizing" being a social satire wherein Matt Damon's character feels like he will solve all of his problems if he were to shrink himself, only to find himself with a different and perhaps more challenging set of problems. "Downsizing" hit the film festival run, but didn't exactly get the praise that Payne was probably hoping for as it currently stands at a 64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that this one will probably be left out in a race that has so many other major contenders. Yet with this unique premise, this could still find an audience among general moviegoers.

The fourth wide release of December 22 is probably another small to moderate wide release and that is All the Money in the World. The story behind this movie is actually quite fascinating. As is well known by this time, Hollywood has decided to have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual assault and sexual harassment in the work place. Many people are coming forward with allegations towards all sorts of celebrities, which in turn is rightfully causing the careers of many of these perpetrators to be in serious jeopardy. One of said people who has been completely disowned by Hollywood is Kevin Spacey, who was originally set to star in this film. When all of these allegations came out towards him, Spacey was cut from the film and replaced with Christopher Plummer. Thus two weeks and $10 million of reshoots were commissioned to refilm these scenes, which began on November 20. Instead of postponing the film because of that, TriStar is maintaining this December 22 release date, which is a pretty insane commitment. This will certainly give the film a lot more attention than it probably would've initially had. The movie, by the way, is the true story of the kidnapping of a 16-year-old boy wherein his mom is begging his billionaire grandfather to pay the ransom.

The final movie to talk about on this release date is the latest from legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg as he delivers The Post. This is a movie that will be released in just four theaters this weekend as it gets its Oscar-qualifying run in before expanding nationwide in mid-January, but we might as well talk about it now while we're in the Oscar mood this month because this is definitely a major contender. At this point there isn't really one major front runner like there usually is at this point, which should make the awards season interesting, but it's worthy of mentioning that the National Board of Review named "The Post" as their best movie of 2017, which in turn means that this could end up as our best picture winner, which would give Spielberg his first best picture win since "Schindler's List" in 1994 and 10th overall best picture nomination. The movie sees Spielberg taking on the story of the Pentagon Papers, which was a major battle between the press and the government in the 1970's as the government, through four U.S. presidents, were covering up their involvement in the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are the leads in the movie.

December 25th-

The final weekend of December begins on the 29th and goes through New Year's Eve, with New Year's Day landing on a Monday. There are no wide releases on this weekend as Hollywood usually avoids New Year's, allowing the box office to instead be dominated by our Christmas holdovers, of which we will have plenty to choose from as you have seen in this post. On Christmas Day, though, while there are no new additional wide releases, two final limited releases that are worth briefly noting will be hitting theaters. The first of these two is Phantom Thread, which is said to be the final film from legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who has won three best actor Oscars for "Lincoln," "There Will Be Blood" and "My Left Foot," while being nominated for an additional two in "Gangs of New York" and "In the Name of the Father." While the competition is strong, thus not guaranteeing Day-Lewis goes out on a win, he's a surefire bet to at least get nominated. "Phantom Thread" reunites Day-Lewis with director Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") as he stars as a dressmaker in 1950's London who becomes disrupted by a strong-willed woman. If this is indeed Day-Lewis' final film before he retires, he will certainly be missed in Hollywood.

Last but not least, we have the directorial debut of writer Aaron Sorkin with Molly's Game. Sorkin at this point in his career is a very well-loved screenwriter as he won an Oscar for "The Social Network" and got nominated for "Moneyball." He also wrote "A Few Good Men" in the early 90's and most recently "Steve Jobs" while also being the creator of the TV series "The West Wing." His first dive into directing has at least gotten the attention of various critics and if received well it's feasible that this could sneak into the best picture race, although currently you can say it's one of the many on the fence. The movie stars Jessica Chastain, who is overdue for another nomination after just missing out on several acclaimed roles. She was previously nominated for "The Help" and "Zero Dark Thirty." In "Molly's Game," Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, who became the target of an FBI investigation that zeroed in on her underground poker empire that included celebrities, athletes, business tycoons and the Russian mob. "Molly's Game" debuted at Toronto International Film Festival to solid reviews and co-stars Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird Review

Oscar season is in full force right now and I am excited to now be talking about a major contender in the best picture race that I saw just over a week ago. It's worth noting that, yes, I'm just as big of a fan of big summer/holiday blockbusters as the next guy. Heck, I think I gave the new "Avengers: Infinity War" trailer nearly half of its 48 million views yesterday and I've been so excited for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" that I had a dream the other night that I was in the theater about to watch the movie. I woke up for that dream in such a good mood because I realized that that very experience is just two weeks away. Despite that, though, my favorite season of the year is Oscar season. Not necessarily because of the awards themselves. I usually get mad at the Oscars for nominating the wrong films and awarding the wrong nominees with the gold trophies. But this is my favorite season because of the sheer volume of quality independent/art house films that come our way. Films from filmmakers who truly understand the art of filmmaking wherein story, characters and acting are at the forefront rather than fancy visual effects and endless amounts of action sequences and explosions. Again, the latter can be fun, but that's not the sole reason why movies should be made.

On that note, "Lady Bird" is a movie that has achieved quite the remarkable feat on Rotten Tomatoes. With 181 reviews counted as of the publishing of this post, it has maintained a perfect 100 percent. That's the highest number of reviews ever counted for a movie that stayed at 100 percent on the site. The previous high count for a 100 percent film was "Toy Story 2." Thus one could say that it's the best reviewed movie ever on the site, as some outlets have reported. But that wouldn't be completely true because Rotten Tomatoes actually keeps an updated list of that on their site in which they use a weighted, Bayesian formula based on several factors in which "The Wizard of Oz" is currently in the lead. "Lady Bird" is currently No. 37 on that list, behind other 2017 films "Get Out," "The Big Sick," "Dunkirk," Wonder Woman" and "Logan," with the potential to climb higher as more reviews come in. But that's beside the point. A perfect score is hard to maintain and it's really impressive that it is nearing the 200 review count without getting a single negative review. That doesn't mean all 181 of them have crowned it as the best movie of all time. That just means all of them have at least given the movie a pass. Not one single Grinch has hated this movie. Knock on wood.

So what is this movie that has received such positive praise? Simple really. It's another one of our high school, coming of age dramas. Christine McPherson, who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird, is a senior in high school at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California acting very much like a senior in high school who is excited to get away from her horrible family and boring life in this dull city when she finally graduates and is able to go off to college. The movie takes place over the course of a year as we watch her live out her senior year. That's it. That's our movie. Now after watching the trailers and reading some of the reviews, I went into this movie rather giddy and excited. However, as we began this movie, I began to ask myself the very question that you are probably asking yourself right now after having read my description. How is it that a movie with this specific premise, of which we've seen a hundred times before, being considered as one of the best movies of the year and a serious contender to win best picture? As I began, I thought to myself that this may be one of those movies that is perfectly enjoyable, but not necessarily a personal favorite of the year. Maybe it was going to be like Saoirse Ronan's 2015 film "Brooklyn." A good movie, but not a great movie?

However, as we continued through the film I found myself absolutely shocked as to how much I was enjoying this film. I've liked plenty of high school dramas, from older ones like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" to more recent ones such as "Easy A" or "The DUFF." Even this year's "Spider-Man: Homecoming" falls into that category. But I kid you not, never have I been this invested into a film from this genre as I have "Lady Bird." When I began to think of comparisons, it's not those previously mentioned movies that came to my mind first. There were two other movies that came to my mind that DID make my top 10 lists in their respective years. The first being "About Time" from 2013 and the other being "Boyhood" from 2014. "About Time" is a small film that looked like it was a typical romance drama with time travel elements, but ended up being more about the relationship between a father and son that was deep and emotional. "Boyhood" is a rather epic movie filmed over the course of 12 years that is about a family living life from when the boy is six years old to when he is 18 years and moving onto college. Take that idea from "Boyhood," except only do one year instead of 12, then add in the deep parent/child relationship from "About Time" and you have "Lady Bird."

Even though this movie is about Lady Bird living life during her senior year, the movie is centered around the drama between Lady Bird and her mother. What makes this so fascinating is how real this feels. Greta Gerwig, who is mainly known for her acting, steps into the director's chair for the first time and you know from the very first sequences of the movie that she just gets it as a writer and director. She knows what it was like to live as a senior in high school and she has crafted a film that perfectly represents that period of still being quite immature, then transitioning to adulthood. In fact, Greta Gerwig went to a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, so you could almost say that this movie is semi-autobiographical. That's what it feels like, anyways. This feels less like a movie you are watching and more like footage from an actual family trying to make it in the world. I said earlier that Lady Bird is a girl trying to get away from her horrible family. Truth is, her family is not horrible at all. That's just what it's like from her perspective, which is typical for a high school student. The mother in this movie, played by Laurie Metcalf, is a fantastic mother who is struggling to figure out how to raise such an independent-spirited teenage daughter.

I imagine you can go into this movie and appreciate it from multiple perspectives. Those who graduated high school recently can watch this movie and appreciate the fact that this movie so perfectly portrays what it is like as a teenager in high school. Lady Bird goes through several different phases throughout the year that are easy to relate to. She's such a fun, quirky character that I just wanted to go be her friend because it seemed like she would such a great person to be around. There's a lot of things that she did that had me laughing hysterically. But then, in typical high school fashion, something unexpected would happen that was like a punch in the gut. In those moments, I just wanted to go up to Lady Bird and tell her that everything was going to be OK. Let her cry on my shoulder or talk together about how much life sucks sometimes. That's the type of relationship that I had with this movie. Given that I'm not that old, the high school aspect was what I was able to relate most with, but I imagine that parents with teenage kids are going to watch this and have similar reactions towards Laurie Metcalf's character as the mother. I imagine it's really tough to try to raise a teenage child and I'm confident that this movie perfectly captures that feel as well.

In short, the relationship between a parent and child, regardless of situation, can be a difficult relationship due to the fact that both often have the same personalities. When both have strong personalities, those personalities can clash really hard as the child wants to be independent but the parent wants to be stern because they want what's best for the child. The child will be angry and mad at the parent and want to get away while later in life, after coming of age, the child will then realize how great the parent was. They will grow up and have children of their own and turn into the parent that they once clashed with. This relationship and this bond was captured so perfectly in this movie that I fell in love with it. Helping this out, I think Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf both gave brilliant acting performances that are well worth the Oscar nominations that they better both get. As far as Saoirse Ronan goes, I've been following her for a while. I first noticed her in "Hanna" in 2011 and have loved her ever since. Each one of her characters is quite different, but she plays them all so well. Yet Lady Bird might be my favorite character she's played. And I'm also happy that I now know how to pronounce her name. You say it "Sersha." As in rhyming with "inertia."

I started this review by talking a lot about the Rotten Tomatoes score and I want to end this review by following up with that. Just remember, a Rotten Tomatoes score is the percentage of critics who gave the movie at least a pass. A movie in the 90 percent or higher range does not necessarily mean that everyone thinks the movie is the greatest movie ever made. It just means that a lot of people enjoyed it. Given how much buzz "Lady Bird" is receiving on the awards front, my biggest fear is that it will receive too much buzz. I would absolutely hate it if the second wave of people went in expecting "Lady Bird" to be the greatest movie ever made and walked out deciding that they hated it because it didn't live up to these lofty expectations. "Lady Bird" is a smaller, homely-feeling movie about what it's like to transition from adolescence to adulthood. And it does a perfect job at that. Go in with those expectations and I think you will fall in love with this as I did. The only thing that upset me was that the movie ended. While it absolutely ended perfectly, I wasn't ready for it to end. I wanted to keep going with this story and these characters to see what happened next because I was so invested. I think that's the sign of a truly great movie and thus I am confidently giving "Lady Bird" a 10/10.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas Review

With Thanksgiving over, it's officially time to put our focus on Christmas. What better way to start the season off than by reviewing this appropriately timed biopic of Charles Dickens as he wrote everyone's favorite Christmas novella, "A Christmas Carol"? Even though I'm a Grinch during most of November as I get frustrated with people seemingly skipping over Thanksgiving by celebrating Christmas right when Halloween ends (or before in some cases), I really do enjoy the Christmas season, so long as people don't put too much of their focus on the commercialism aspect of the holiday. In fact, I considered going on a run of Christmas-themed movie reviews during December like I did with Halloween movies in October. But I'm probably not going to get around to that this year with how busy things usually are in December. What I might do instead is give you one special review of a Christmas movie on or close to Christmas. While I had this idea in mind before I saw this movie, I mention it here because that movie would indeed be my favorite version of "A Christmas Carol," which I will leave a mystery for now. There's a lot of them. And a lot of good versions, too. Thus made it all the more fun to go watch the movie about how this story came to be.

While I'm very familiar with "A Christmas Carol," I'm less familiar with Charles Dickens himself and the events that led up to the publishing of this classic novella. Thus I found this movie fascinatingly educational. Here we start with Charles Dickens celebrating the enormous success of his novel "Oliver Twist" in 1839, which was quite overwhelming for him in certain instances. Fast forward a few years until October 1843 where Dickens has since experienced, according to the movie, three straight flops, putting him into a bit of a predicament moving forward with his career. Looking at Dickens' bibliography, I'm guessing that these flops were "Nicholas Nickelby," "The Old Curiosity Shop" and "Barnaby Rudge." I don't know enough about Dickens to know if flop is the right word for these books, but I can say with confidence that "Oliver Twist" and "A Christmas Carol" are certainly more well-known. Thus we have a movie in "The Man Who Invented Christmas" that is not only an insight into what inspired "A Christmas Carol" and what Dickens went through in trying to get that story finalized, but we also have a movie that dives into the mindset and life of a writer while they are experiencing the valleys in between their peaks of success.

That latter aspect is something that I think can be very relatable to many people. It can be very frustrating putting your heart and soul into a certain project only to see the Grinches that write reviews to take a few looks at it and then pan it as garbage. It's very disheartening. Thus you can empathize with Dickens' desire to ignore what the critics have to say and hope that the casual readers will appreciate his work more. But then they start to ignore him, too, in the form of not buying his books and suddenly Dickens is left in a predicament that he is running out of money and needs to come up with something because he has a wife and kids he needs to support with another child on the way. Sometimes we forgot about the behind-the-scenes drama that can happen in the life of a writer when things aren't going their way. Now I'm not as big into reading books as others, so instead I like to apply this to filmmaking and use stories like this to help remind me that it takes a lot of time and effort to write, direct and make a film. Yes, I will be honest about my opinions as I write these reviews, but I also do my best to respect the process and remember everything that went into making these movies. So I appreciated this movie for reminding me to be a bit sensitive when giving my opinions.

That of course isn't the main focus of this movie. But I found it to be an interesting side note. Whether or not you are the one writing the reviews or simply consuming the material, whether it be books, movies, TV shows or whatever, it's good to remember that this is someone's life work over the last however many months or even years. With that perspective in mind, I think it becomes easier to at least do a better job of respecting the material. The main focus of this movie, though, is the other aspect of writing. Bringing a story to life. Which can be equally as challenging, if not more so. Because we have this thing called writer's block that every writer goes through. I know I do all the time when I'm writing these movie reviews. It took me a bit of time to figure out exactly how to approach this one and I got stuck a few times along the way. Sometimes these reviews come easy for me. Other times they're really difficult. Even if you're not in the writing field, we've all been to school on some level and have been asked by a professor to write a paper. Sometimes we get those papers churned out really quick. Other times we get stuck. So yeah, I think we all know what Charles Dickens is going through to some degree, which made this a fun watch, at least for me.

Speaking of writing, the challenge with this movie is how are they going to manage to make a movie about someone writing a book interesting? It's especially tricky considering we all know how this story turns out. Because, spoiler alert (but not really), Dickens successfully writes "A Christmas Carol" and everyone loved it. There can't be too many twists and surprises with this movie, so they had to come up with a way to make the journey interesting. I personally think they did a great job at that as the approach here was to make the characters themselves show up once Dickens nailed them down in his head. As the saying goes, once you have everything in place, the story writes itself, right? I found it to be a blast to watch Dickens interact with all of these characters as it almost took him by surprise when characters would show up and argue with him about how things were going to turn out and what the right thing to do was. Specifically the interactions between Dickens and Scrooge were priceless as the two would banter back and forth quite a bit during this process. This was helped by great chemistry between Dan Stevens as Dickens and Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, the latter now has to be included in the conversation of one of the best portrayals of Scrooge.

This here leads us to the themes of the movie. The biggest block that Dickens goes through in writing this story is how is he going to properly finish this story that does justice to the characters while portraying the appropriate messages that he is trying to get across. The biggest obstacle in this being the character of Scrooge. Can a man really change overnight when he's spent his whole life being bitter and angry towards the world? This put Dickens through quite the turmoil which causes the movie to parallel "A Christmas Carol" in his themes. Dickens is a good man, but he gets so invested in this story and so troubled with how he's going to finish it that he kinda becomes a Scrooge himself as he starts pushing away the people he cares about, not fully realizing what he's doing. Thus we get the themes from "A Christmas Carol" centered on what Christmas is, or should be, all about. What makes "A Christmas Carol" so moving is seeing the transformation of Scrooge through the night as he examines what happened to him in the past, what's going on around him in the present and what could happen if he doesn't change. We see similar transformations from Dickens in this movie as he figures out what this story is going to be.

I don't know what Bleecker Street's plans are with this movie's expansion throughout the holiday. It only opened in around 600 theaters and didn't have the best per theater average during that opening weekend. So this might be the type of movie where you will have to go on a bit of a hunt to figure out exactly where it's playing. But if you're a fan of any version of "A Christmas Carol," I would highly suggest you make that hunt because this is a solid companion piece to "A Christmas Carol" as it provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into what went into the writing of this story. We get a good look into what life can be like for a writer in general, which can help us more appreciate the final results of their work. But it was also fun seeing this specific story come to life as Dickens is interacting with his characters as they show up and help him in writing his story, which felt very metaphorical for what was going on in Dickens' head and the movie does a great job of successfully pulling at your heartstrings in a way that a holiday movie should do as we see this story go from an idea in Dickens' head to a published novella that really did help revolutionize how people looked at Christmas back in the day and continues to do so today. I'm going to award the movie an 8/10.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Coco Review

Thanksgiving is a strong holiday for Disney as they currently own nine of the top ten spots on the list of the biggest three-day and five-day Thanksgiving opening weekends with "Frozen," "Moana," "Toy Story 2," "Tangled" and "The Good Dinosaur" currently comprising the top five. They're about to add another juggernaut to that list as Pixar's latest original film "Coco" will be hitting theaters. Now to be clear, this is referring to all movies distributed by Mother Disney, which is quite a bit nowadays. Now if we're being specific, "Coco" comes to us via Pixar Animation Studios, which is different than Walt Disney Animation Studios, even though both are owned and distributed by Mother Disney. Pixar used to be the kings of animation as nearly every movie they put out would practically be guaranteed to be a great movie and a box office monster as at one point they had a streak of nine straight movies make over $200 million at the domestic box office. Recently they've been a bit more spotty that one would like as, since "Toy Story 3" in 2010, the only true classic Pixar they've come up with is "Inside Out," with "Finding Dory" also coming close. But thankfully I'm here to reveal that they've conjured up another huge winner as "Coco" is definitely one of their top tier films.

"Coco" is the story of a young boy named Miguel who is an avid lover of music. The problem with this is that music is banned in his family due to actions of Miguel's great-great-grandfather, a musician who abandoned his family to pursue his music career. That made his great-great-grandmother bitter towards music, so she refused to allow it in her household and the tradition of no music passed down through the generations. This sets up a conflict with young Miguel who has to pick between following his musical career or honoring his family and he is angry at his family for not letting him pursue his music career, so he is leaning towards leaving his family to play his music. Through a series of events, Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead during Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where he has to get the blessing from his ancestors or remain their forever, and they're also wanting him to promise to never play music before they give him their blessing, so this leads us through a rather eventful journey through the Land of the Dead as Miguel tries to resolve this conflict. As far as why the movie is called "Coco," it's actually a very beautiful title for the movie, but I'll let you discover the specific reasons on your own as minor spoilers would be required to elaborate.

The obvious comparison for this movie is the 2014 film "The Book of Life." Some will wonder why Pixar is doing that movie all over again. Now I can't speak for everyone, but I actually wasn't a huge fan of "The Book of Life." I thought it had a very unique animation style that almost made it appear like a stop motion film with toy figurines, even though it was 100 percent computer animation. That's all the movie really had going for it, though. I thought the story was uninspiring and the characters were forgettable. It felt more like a cliché love story with a Day of the Dead backdrop rather than a movie that was focused on honoring Mexican culture by going all in on the Day of the Dead themes of honoring and remembering your ancestors. I didn't hate the movie, but I saw the potential the movie had and was disappointed that it didn't live up to that potential. Thus when I saw Pixar had their own Day of the Dead movie coming up, instead of being confused as to why we were revisiting "The Book of Life," I was extremely excited because I felt like Pixar could actually deliver me the movie that I wanted "The Book of Life" to be. A movie whose sole focus is to go all in on helping all of us remember and respect our ancestors, thus giving us the Day of the Dead that we all deserve.

The reason why I love "Coco" so much is that it ended up being the exact movie that I hoped it would be. This is a very Mexican movie and I mean that in the best way possible. It felt like a movie made by Mexicans that was intended on being released solely in Mexico. I almost felt like it would've been more appropriate to watch the Spanish version of the movie with English subtitles as if this were a foreign film. In fact, while typing this review I've been listening to the "Coco" soundtrack on Apple Music, which has all the English songs and the Spanish songs. I think I like the Spanish version of the songs better than the English versions that I can understand because they are just so pretty. Now I'm certainly not an expert on Mexican culture and tradition, even though I have plenty of Mexican friends. What I do know is that this movie was released in Mexico on October 27, shortly before Day of the Dead, and is now the highest grossing movie ever in Mexico, passing the previous record set by "The Avengers." I've also read reactions from people there who have praised the movie for doing a beautiful job of honoring their culture. So I feel confident in declaring that this movie does indeed do a beautiful job of honoring this great culture and tradition even though I'm not an expert.

Continuing this Mexican theme, as I went and re-read my review of "The Book of Life," one thing that I noted in that review is that a good portion of the cast were American and it seemed like they were also dumbing down this holiday for an American audience by spending a while explaining what this holiday was while being nervous to immerse themselves too much, as if they would lose their American audiences that the movie seemed intended for. This is definitely not the case here in "Coco" as they dive right into this holiday and these themes without spending any time explaining the holiday, as if they already know that their target audience is well aware of the holiday. And just by looking at the names of the cast members on IMDb, I'd be willing to guess that most of the cast are either Mexican or have Mexican heritage, which I think is a good thing. Sometimes Hollywood feels the need to cast American actors to play or voice foreign people as if they wouldn't make money otherwise. Then we have cries of white washing throughout the internet. Even though I think people go a little overboard with these complaints, it is nice when a movie that's intending to honor a culture actually uses actors who represent that culture. That makes a big difference.

Going back to my American perspective on this movie, I don't think you need to have a vast knowledge of Day of the Dead or Mexican culture to love and appreciate this movie. I feel that the themes of family unity are universal, thus I feel that everyone can relate to the messages portrayed here. The kid Miguel in this movie can represent all of us as we are sometimes frustrated with things that are family has done or is doing to us. Yet despite this, we can learn through the eyes of Miguel the importance of family as he learns these very lessons through this journey in the Land of the Dead. Even more specifically, we can learn to love and respect our family members that went before us. Thus the movie teaches lessons of genealogy and family history work. We may know the stories of our parents or grandparents, but how far back do we know? Are there some ancestors that are in risk of being forgotten? If so, what are we going to do to remember them? This is the purpose of the Day of the Dead holiday and these are the themes that "Coco" drives home as our main kid tries figure out how to properly balance his priorities in his life of following his dream and honoring and remembering his family. These are powerful lessons that were very inspiring to me.

When it comes to animated films, often the stereotype is that these movies are for kids. Yet I think we all know that when it comes to Pixar, their absolute best movies are the ones that resonate just as equally, if not more, with the adults than the kids. Movies like "Toy Story 3" and "Inside Out" are fun enough for the kids, but the themes present are ones that are better understood and appreciated by the adults watching the film. I honestly think this is exactly where "Coco" stands. There's enough in here to grab the kids' attention and help them have fun, but if you're going to "Coco," you're not going to so that your kids can have a fun time at the theater. You're going for your own personal enjoyment while hoping that your kids enjoy the film as well. In fact, if I were to pick a side for this movie, I'd say this movie is more for adults and less for kids. And in true Pixar fashion, "Coco" does an absolutely beautiful job at tugging at your heartstrings. If Pixar movies in the past have made you cry, then don't leave your box of tissues at home for this one because you're going to need them. And then you're going to go home with a new or renewed desire to research your own ancestors and learn of their stories so that they won't be forgotten for future generations.

In summary, "Coco" does everything that we've come to expect from a Pixar movie. The reason why I've been so harsh on recent Pixar movies such as "Cars 2," "Cars 3," "The Good Dinosaur" and "Monsters University" is that I know what Pixar is capable of and I thus I have a very high bar for them when I go into a new Pixar movie. While that might seem unfair, movies like "Inside Out" and now "Coco" prove to me that it's OK to have these high expectations because Pixar is still capable of meeting them. In terms of where "Coco" ranks among the Pixar classics, I'm having a tough time figuring out a specific ranking in my head just because Pixar has made so many good movies and this is their 19th feature-length film, and this will be the 15th one that I think is really good. What I'm more comfortable with at this point is separating these movies into categories. In the top category that I would label as Pixar classics, I currently have "Toy Story 3," "Toy Story," "The Incredibles," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo," "Inside Out" and "Up." "Coco" will now join that group. That should make you excited. The only reason I'm not giving it a perfect score is that it took a bit getting started and is slightly predictable. That said, the grade that I'm settling with for now for "Coco" is a 9/10.




P.S. - Before you get treated to this new Pixar classic that is "Coco," you will be subjected to a 21-minute short film called "Olaf's Frozen Adventure." This will be a good time to go to the bathroom, stretch your legs, go buy some concessions or whatever it is you do to prepare yourself for a movie because this little holiday short film is way too long and really annoying. And this is coming from someone who still really likes "Frozen," despite the fact that it has become the cool thing to hate the movie. I like the two story arcs that Anna and Elsa go through. I like our side characters, including the normally hilarious Olaf. And I really enjoy the music. And I respect the fact that it has become this young generation's version of "The Lion King." And I didn't even mind our little "Frozen Fever" short film in front of 2015's "Cinderella." But this short film made me want to melt Olaf and banish Anna and Elsa to a deserted island. I don't think this is indicative of how "Frozen 2" will turn out because I think Disney's main team of animators and writers will take special care of that one. But if I'm wrong and it is, we are all in trouble. Perhaps your young girls will enjoy seeing their favorite characters again, but for me I was really just wanting "Coco" to start. Fair warning.

Mudbound Review

We live in an age where Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services are changing the way we do movies and TV. I don't review everything I watch on Netflix. For the most part I use that for my own personal entertainment while occasionally throwing something up on Facebook or Twitter about what I watched. In fact, that's exactly what I was going to do for this movie. But as I started typing up my "quick thoughts" on Facebook, I realized there was a lot to say here, so I might as well turn this into a full review. "Mudbound" is a movie that you will see with the official title of a Netflix original film, but the true story is that this has been a popular festival movie this year as it initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, followed by showings in several big film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Along the way it's picked up a lot of momentum heading into awards season with solid reviews from critics and festival goers. Netflix and Amazon have been going to the festivals the last few years and have been buying the rights to films like these. "Mudbound" was Netflix's major purchase this year, as they beat out the likes of A24 and Annapurna for distribution rights. And they're giving it a heavy push for awards.

The movie is based off the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan and is set in rural Mississippi around the time frame of World War II. Henry McAllan, played by Jason Clarke, has purchased a farm and moves his family there, despite the fact that his wife Laura, played by Carey Mulligan, was never really a fan of this idea. She was enjoying her life as a domestic house wife. In fact, she was never really madly in love with him in the first place, but married him anyways for various reasons. But she accepts the change and they move in, working on his dream of becoming farmers. Moving in with them is Henry's violently racist father, played by Jonathan Banks from "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul." This you know is going to cause major issues given that tenants on this farm are the black family, Hap and Florence Jackson, played by Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige, along with their kids. Along with this, we have the beginning of the United States' involvement in World War II, instigated by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Henry's brother Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund, as well as the Jackson son Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell, go off to war and become friends when they get back as they bond over war experiences and both try to integrate back into normal life.

If this sounds super complex, it's really not. This is just a really long movie, clocking in at 134 minutes. The movie does follow a narrative structure that I'm not a huge fan of. We start at the end of the story, tease something major and intense, then jump back to the beginning and spend the rest of the story building up to that point. This is something that a lot of TV shows that I watch do frequently and while it occasionally works, I mostly am tired of it as I don't think it's a structure that's super effective. I get the idea of teasing audiences, thus putting them on the edge of their seats as they intensely watch the story unfold, eager to learn how we get to that point and how everything is going to be resolved. And maybe the filmmakers thought that this was important because a lot of nothing happens following that intro. But I'd rather have the element of surprise in my story. In this situation, we have yet another story about racism on a farm or a plantation in our country's history and thus I already knew that something bad was going to happen. Thus the only thing that teasing me at the beginning ended up accomplishing was giving me vital clues that ended up helping me piece together exactly what was going to happen once we got into the meat of the story.

That narrative structure, though, was more of a minor annoyance for me. If the rest if the movie was an epic, important masterpiece, I would've been able to forgive the movie. I think the bigger issue for me is that while watching this movie, I felt like I had seen this exact movie done a hundred times before. There's a lot of movies about racism and slavery on the farm/plantation scene, thus if we're going to do it again, the movie needs to do something to separate itself from the crowd. "Mudbound" certainly isn't a bad movie, but I don't think it has the element of uniqueness needed for me to recommend that this is a must-see for educational purposes that can teach us about the horrific things that happened in the past while applying said themes to the present day where racism is still a huge issue. Instead I kept feeling while watching that this was a less important, less intense version of "12 Years a Slave." The big differences being that this is in the 1940's, not the 1800's, and the black family on the farm in "Mudbound" are there on their own free will as opposed to being slaves. Outside that, these are two very similar movies. If I'm being honest, "12 Years a Slave" is the movie I would recommend you seeing while "Mudbound" is one that's not necessary.

The other major problem with "Mudbound" is the pacing of the movie. This is a movie that is 134 minutes long. And while I'm not inherently opposed to long movies, the aforementioned "12 Years a Slave" is the exact same length, if you're going to go long, you need to justify your run time. Whatever time you need to properly tell your story, take it. "Mudbound" is a movie that has this intriguing opening scene, but then spends 110 minutes of its 134 minute run time building up to this moment. We spend a lot of time learning about both families, spend time with both Jamie and Ronsel off at war, spend time with them as they become friends afterwards, and through it all I'm thinking that this could've been at least 30 minutes shorter. Or maybe the big moment could've happened halfway through the movie instead of towards the end, then we could've stretched that part out a bit to give the movie more balance. Or something like that. Point is we had a really long movie that spent most of its run time building up to the final sequence without having a whole ton of drama or intensity in the process. It could've used a bit more polishing somewhere in order to capture my attention for the entire movie instead of just during that final act.

What helps the movie out is solid acting across the board. I did a lot of name-dropping of actors playing each role in that second paragraph and I did that because all of them deserve a mention. If this movie does get love during the awards season, the voters will have a lot of performances to choose from. If the Oscars had a category for best ensemble cast, that would be the most appropriate place to award this movie. A few of the pre-cursors do have that and I hope they include. But for the major awards shows that leave that category out, we instead have to play this game of who are we going to nominate. My choice is Jason Mitchell as Ronsel followed closely by Garrett Hedlund as Jamie. While the movie is about a lot of characters, I would contend it's mainly about these two and both of these characters are the ones who have the best story arcs. Mitchell and Hedlund both do a great job of selling their roles so that you buy this relationship and have strong emotional connections when they are put through heavy criticisms for  simply being friends. My third choice would be Jonathan Banks for his despicable villainous turn which would then be followed by Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan all on even levels behind those three.

I will conclude that, while the movie suffers from these pacing issues and doesn't set itself apart from the crowd of films that touch on this subject matter, the final act in the movie is done well enough to sell me to the positive side when it comes to this review. Given that the movie spoils itself enough with that opening sequences, I'm going to stay far away from spoilers here and thus not tell you much of these positives. I will simply say that the aforementioned acting from everyone involved does a great job of adding to the emotional weight of that final act. I also won't talk about the themes in the movie that you are left with once the final credits roll, but those are also satisfying enough to make me pleased with the final result of the film. And I loved the song that was playing during those credits. Thus in summary, it's hard to pinpoint this movie down and give it one definitive grade. Perhaps if I've made you curious enough, you can sit down and find out for yourself? You don't have to find a theater or pay for a ticket. If you have a Netflix account this is a free watch that you can stop at any time if you decide it's not your thing. But for me, when I weigh the strong positives with the concerning negatives, I think a fair overall grade for "Mudbound" would be a 7/10.