Saturday, December 31, 2016

Sing Review

It's American Idol with animals! Sounds like the absolute perfect idea for a movie, right? No? OK, if I'm being perfectly honest, I thought "Sing" looked really dumb. All the trailers focused on were the audition phases of an American Idol type of music competition with anthropomorphic animals. That's it. Was there any plot? Was there going to be any substance to this at all? I mean, I know Illumination is on a roll financially with their last three movies all making over $300 million domestically, but there last outing, "The Secret Life of Pets," was a movie that I found really dumb. Needless to say that in a crowded holiday season, this was super low on my list of movies that I wanted to see. But as family tradition of seeing a movie with all the nieces and nephews on Christmas Eve rolled around, I realized that this was our only option. So as the movie guru of the family, I submitted and made the suggestion, hoping that the kids would love it and that perhaps it would be serviceable for the adults. And, well, while 2016 has given us a lot of big duds, we can chalk this one up into one of the surprises of the year. I found myself actually enjoying this movie as I was watching!

So what is this movie really about? Because as I said, all the trailers focused on were the auditions of all these animals. In an odd turn of events, these auditions were like five minutes of the movie towards the beginning. That's it. In order to make sure I don't forget anything, I actually had to take notes on all the main characters because if I have it right, this movie has seven main storylines interconnecting in one giant maze of a movie. Our main storyline is of a koala named Buster, voiced by Matthew McConaughey, who is really high on himself, but in reality kinda sucks at life. He was inspired by to get into the music business by this famous singer that blew him away and thus I believe he ends up purchasing the city's main musical hall and is in charge of putting on all the plays and musical productions. Or something to that effect. Despite his best efforts, it's a business that he's really not cut out for as everything he puts on is a big failure. It's so bad that he has earned like no money and the bank is trying to foreclose on the theater and possess it if he can't pay his debts. In a last ditch effort, he decides to put on a musical competition that he thinks is going to blow the city away and his plan is to offer $1,000 to the winner because that's all he has.

Well, as it turns out, his clumsy assistant, an iguana named Ms. Crawley, voiced by Garth Jennings, accidentally types up the reward as $100,000 and all the papers get blown into the wind across the city without the knowledge of Buster. The next day Buster is rather shocked and excited to see practically the whole city lined up at his theater for this competition. In the meantime we have the story of Rosita the pig, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, with her family of 25 little piglets and lazy husband who does nothing but work. We also have the story of Mike the mouse, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, a street performer who is super cocky and thus gets a lot of people mad at him. We have the story of Johnny the gorilla, voiced by Taron Egerton, who's dad is in a street gang that he is forced to be a part of. We have the story of Ash the teenage porcupine, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who has a jerk boyfriend that is over-controlling. We have the story of Meena the elephant, voiced by Tori Kelly, who is a phenomenal singer, yet has stage fright to the extreme. And we have the story of Eddie the sheep, voiced by John C. Reilly, who is Buster's best friend and is kind of a loser without a life who still stays with his parents and has little desire to actually find a job. Got all that?

Yeah, this movie is kinda packed with story. It's almost targeted at the people group of people who can't focus on one specific storyline for longer than five minutes as it keeps bouncing around to all of these people and stories. And should I mention that in either supporting or cameo roles we also have Nick Kroll, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Leslie Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Nick Offerman, Bill Farmer, Adam Buxton, Brad Morris, Wes Anderson, Chris Renaud, Edgar Wright and a whole lot more? In a weird way, though, this actually works. I found myself invested in all of these different stories and characters. Even though we bounced around a ton -- I would've been fine with slowing things down and maybe only having half as many storylines going on -- I thought the movie did a decent job of balancing everything and making you care about everyone. Each of the characters has a very different story and background and each of these stories teaches a different message that can be valuable to young kids. Sure, from the moment each story is introduced you know exactly how it's going to turn out, but being that this is a kid's movie, but they did a good enough job with the stories that a predictable plot is forgivable. We don't need crazy twists in a kids movie.

If I were to point out one major flaw, I would say that this movie isn't necessarily a super memorable movie as it does kinda wonder for the majority of the run time. In a perfect scenario, if you are making a kids movie, you want it to be a movie that will entertain the kids from beginning to end and cause them to want to watch the movie on repeat once it comes to DVD because of how entertaining it is. And if you want to be on perfect Pixar level with your movie, you will also find a way to touch and inspire adults as well. For a good portion of this movie, I think this hits a black zone where it's not super entertaining for the kids and is not really memorable for adults. The opening sequences with the auditions were a huge hit with all the kids in the theater. But then we set up so much story that we don't have enough time to do all the fun musical stuff and thus we have a story heavy plot because we have so many stories to catch up on. In my personal observations, there was a long period of time where I heard no laughs or excited reactions from all the kids in the theater. Thus I feared that this might be a boring movie that none of them liked or will want to watch again. On the adult front, I was kinda getting bored, too. I found myself wanting more musical stuff and less story.

Then we have the saving grace of the movie. The finale. All things considered, I don't think it's a spoiler to say that this movie ends with a big, knockout performance from all of our stars. I mean, we have freaking Tori Kelly as one of our main characters. You know she is going to sing. I'm honestly not sure if Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson and Nick Kroll did their own singing. But their characters they voice spend the whole movie preparing a piece. If they didn't perform at the end, this would be a really dumb movie. We do go typical American Idol style where the preparation video shown is of all the failures and obstacles and magically everything is perfect when they get on the stage to perform. But eh. It's whatever. I think it was five big numbers we get and all of them were fantastic. This was honestly one of the most rewarding finales from an animated movie all year. As someone who loves music, I was super entertained by this concert we got at the end of the movie and I think the movie did a pretty good job of tying a nice, pretty bow on all of our main storylines. It gave it enough of a good touch to make me pleased.

Overall, if you're looking for a family-friendly movie to take your kids to, "Sing" is a pretty good option. It has an entertaining beginning with a great setup to all of our characters and a phenomenal ending. It sets up so much story that for much of the middle of the movie it spends time doing justice to all of the stories it set, thus for a while it loses all of its audience. It probably would've been better off cutting some of the storylines and spend more time with animals singing. As is, it's only a musical in the very beginning and the very end. But I think the finale and the intro are good enough to leave a good impression on both kids and adults. Also, as a fair warning, your kids might walk out singing, "Oh my gosh, look at her butt." That was an unnecessary part of the audition phase. The rest is super kid friendly, though. And all in all, in seeing these movies, I do my best to observe how the kids reacted and in talking to my nieces and nephews afterwards, I honestly think they had a good time. I don't think anyone had their mind blown, but I think this is a movie that did it's job and in my opinion is Illumination's third best movie behind the two "Despicable Me" movies. I'll give "Sing" an 8/10.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Passengers Review

We've began a fun tradition in Hollywood. Every year we've had a big-budget space movie released towards the end of the year. And no, I'm not talking about Star Wars, although that yearly tradition starting up has been cool, too. I'm talking about "Gravity" in 2013, "Interstellar" in 2014, "The Martian" in 2015 and now "Passengers" in 2016. As I'm sure is the case with many people, I've always been fascinated with space and I love it when movies or TV shows take me to space. And no, I don't care how scientifically accurate these space movies are. That's not how I judge my enjoyment of them. I just like good space movies. As far as the three previously mentioned movies, I personally loved "Gravity and "The Martian." "Gravity" was my favorite movie of 2013 while "The Martian" was in my top 10 last year. "Insterstellar" I enjoyed for the first two-thirds of the movie until it completely crashed and died for me at the end. I gave it a decent score in my initial review, but it got worse for me over time. "Passengers" seemed like it had everything going for it, but unfortunately for me, we're now two for four in with these movies. "Passengers" is another 2016 blockbuster flushed down the drain.

On paper it seems like a huge win, which is why I was really excited for this. It was directed by Morten Tyldum, the director of 2014's "The Imitation Game," a movie that I enjoyed, but not quite as much as others. I thought the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley far outshined the actual movie itself. But I was still excited to see Tyldum's follow-up to that and curious about him jumping from the indie realm to the sci-fi realm. And of course you can't go wrong with Hollywood's two biggest stars right now - Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Plus the premise was intriguing to me. A large spacecraft is transporting thousands of Earth people to a distant planet that will take 120 years to travel to while going light speed. All the passengers are in fancy hibernation pods that will prevent them from aging. Until a malfunction happens that causes Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to wake up 90 years early. Yeah, that's a problem. That means unless they figure something out, they will spend the rest of their lives travelling on a ship and will be dead before it arrives. What are they going to do? I needed to know. And I was excited to go on this journey!

Little did I know that this movie would feel like it was 90 years long. Like holy freaking fetch. Run time comes in at just under two hours, but it felt like I was watching a five-hour space opera that had no idea what to do with this intriguing premise it set up. Chris Pratt wakes up first and wanders around the ship in a very confused state before finally realizing what has happened. His pod has malfunctioned and now he is all alone on a giant ship with nothing to do and no one to talk to except for this android bartender. He has no idea what he's going to do and quite frankly the writers had no idea what he was supposed to do either. We're just wandering through this movie as he confusedly wanders through life on the ship. And it is so freaking boring. I'm totally fine with a slow burn movie as long as it's written well. I don't need a movie to be action-packed with a ton of fancy effects. But I need something. There's just nothing to this movie to start off. No interesting moments. No flashbacks. Hardly any backstory as far as why they are in the ship. For a moment I thought they were going to do some sort of political, in your face "WALL-E" sort of thing. But no, they didn't even do that. They just wandered aimlessly through the first section of this movie and I was bored to tears.

Then Jennifer Lawrence wakes up. I was thinking to myself, "Yay! Now something is going to happen!" Nope. Even with Jennifer Lawrence awake, the movie still didn't know what it wanted to do. The writers were like, "Hey look! We have Hollywood's two most beautiful people signed on to do our movie. Let's just have them fall in love, make-out and sleep together for the next third of this movie." Because, yup. That's all that happens. I'm sure Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence were having fun. But I wasn't. I felt like I was spying on someone's Honeymoon and it just got awkward really fast. I certainly don't mind romance in movies. But this was ridiculous. No tension. No drama. No story. No depth. No flashbacks. No explanations for what's going on. Just Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence making out and making love. There's no "draw me like one of your French girls" scenes in this movie, if I know what I mean (although more "Titanic" comparisons here in a bit), but they got as close to the R-rating they could with this romance story while still maintaining a PG-13. I don't want to make comparisons to a PG-13 porn movie. But for a while that's all this is. Two beautiful people kissing and sleeping together with no story at all for the second third of the movie.

I don't know how far we got into this movie before we actually started having some drama and tension here, but it was a while. And when it happened, the movie turned into an unintentional comedy with how bad it was. The big problem? I thought the day would never come when I would say this, but the big problem was Jennifer Lawrence. I don't know what was going through her head during the filming of this movie, but it just looked like she didn't care one bit about this movie or the role she was playing. There comes a point when stuff happens and Jennifer Lawrence just starts yelling, screaming and crying to the extreme. It was supposed to make this romance intense and emotional, but she just went so overboard that instead it made me laugh. These two had no chemistry in this movie up to this point and they certainly didn't now with Jennifer's overacting. I think the only thing going through her head was gold trophies and she tried too hard to get another one. The Academy gives them to her so frequently (or at least the nominations) that it's almost getting ridiculous. I love her as an actress, but she did not give Oscar-worthy performances in "American Hustle" or "Joy," but she got the nominations anyways. Seeing her overacting to get another one was frustrating.

I do feel bad for Chris Pratt. He gave this role his all, but the writers gave him nothing and his co-star gave him nothing. It ended up being a poorly done "Titanic" in space movie. Because halfway through, that hit me. Two lovers on a sinking ship. That's "Titanic." That's what "Passengers" was going for. The thing they got wrong was that "Titanic" actually had good execution. Jack and Rose made a fantastic on-screen couple. Not only did they ooze in chemistry, but the fact that Rose comes from a rich background and Jack came from a poor background added a lot of drama and tension that was done well. And despite it being three hours long, the flow is there. There's two unnecessary scenes that should've made the movie R and the fact that there was room on that platform for both of them made for a slightly silly ending, but outside I think "Titanic" is a great movie with a beautiful score, tragic ending, and well-written drama that keeps your attention throughout the three-hour run time. "Passengers" tried to follow that formula, but they fell flat on their face in the execution category. It's as lifeless movie with no chemistry between the two leads.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but when things actually happen in this movie, it gets ridiculous. We started out with boring, then we went to awkward, then we transitioned to laughable, then we ended with ridiculous. Things didn't make sense. They could've ended in a way that would've made it somewhat redeemable, but instead it just crashes and burns. Halfway through this movie I was hoping that this ship would've just blown up and put me out of my misery, so I could get out of this theater that I felt trapped in. The only thing that is slightly redeemable about this movie is a nice message at the end that puts a fancy bow on it. But that certainly wasn't enough to save the movie. I also suppose we had good visual effects, good cinematography and a decent score. But with zero substance and zero story, that all felt wasted. It's like getting a Christmas present in a nice fancy box that's beautifully wrapped in pretty wrapping paper and has a big fancy bow, but has no actual present inside. Or has a present that consists of the dog crap that your brother cleaned off the lawn and wrapped for you. It's worthless and insulting. This movie is a waste of good talent, a waste of a good idea, and a waste of well done effects. That's frustrating. I'm giving "Passengers" a 5/10.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La La Land Review

La La Land is a movie that I had the great fortune of seeing in early November, almost two months ago. I was shown an advanced screening so I could write an article about it after interviewing director Damien Chazelle for my journalism internship. While I could've written my review back then, technically the people who showed me the early screening asked me to wait until December 16 to write my review. I think I could've rebelled and written my review anyways and no one would've cared because this hit the festival run back in September and had all kinds of advanced screenings and early reviews. But I decided I might as well wait until it hits theaters nationwide so that more average movie goers have seen the movie when my review comes out. I'm also glad I waited because it's hard to label a movie as one of the best movies of this decade the second you step out of the theater. It's best to give it some time to sink in. But yes, I think this movie is that good. I haven't seen every movie this decade, so it's hard to make definite statements like that, but out of the movies I have seen, I do think it would at least challenge Inception and Boyhood for the best movie I've seen this decade. So of course that means it's the best movie of 2016. Nothing even comes close in that category.

Damien Chazelle broke onto the scene in a huge way with Whiplash in 2014. It blew people away in Sundance that year and went onto be nominated for several Oscars a year later, one for best picture and a best supporting actor win for J.K. Simmons. It was one of my favorite movies that year as it made my top 10 list for 2014. Great movie! All you had to do was say "Damien Chazelle's next film" and I would be excited. Now you definitely don't need to personally talk with Damien Chazelle in order to enjoy this movie. But since I did, allow me to share a bit of insight that I learned about this film our conversation. La La Land is a movie that Damien Chazelle wrote first. After graduating Harvard, he moved to Los Angeles to live his dream as a filmmaker and he had a rough go at it at first. Music is a big influence for him as he grew up watching the Golden Age musicals from back in the 40's, 50's and 60's and he wanted to make a movie that brought back that magic. But La La Land was such an ambitious project that he couldn't get funding for it or get a studio to back him. So he had to put in on the shelf and do something else. When Whiplash happened, it gave him the spotlight he needed to pick La La Land back up off the shelf and give it a go. It was time to make his dream project.

Yes, this was a very personal project for Damien Chazelle. Not only was this a movie that he had wanted to make, but it was also reflective of his own personally journey. The movie stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who move to Los Angeles to live their dreams. Emma Stone is an aspiring actress trying to get into the movie business and Ryan Gosling is an aspiring jazz musician who's trying his best to make sure that jazz music doesn't die. Both of these characters have a rough go at things at first. Just like Damien Chazelle had a rough go at things when he first moved to Los Angeles to try to make it in the film industry. Jazz music is also something that Damien Chazelle is also passionate about. I didn't even need to talk to him to figure that out. Both Whiplash and La La Land had complete jazz scores. Usually the movies that are very personal for the people making it are the best movies because of all the passion and emotion that those people put into it. You can definitely tell that Damien Chazelle put all of his heart and soul into this project because every scene of this movie is complete perfection. My mind was totally blown while I was watching this as I was sitting there in complete awe watching this film. As I've thought about it over these last couple months, it has only gotten better. Like a good bottle of wine that increases in quality over time.

Not that I drink wine, but it's a good comparison. The other thing that makes a project like this great are two lead stars who put their whole soul into bringing these characters to life. In regards to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this wasn't just a paycheck for them. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist. Some of the pieces he plays are really advanced pieces and I came out wondering if it was actually him or a piano double. Having a professional piano double is not a shameful thing, so if that was the case that wouldn't have downgraded his performance at all. But no. There is zero piano double. In fact, Ryan Gosling trained for several months in order to play all the piano pieces. John Legend, a musical superstar who co-stars in this movie with Gosling and probably spent his whole life learning the piano, was jealous at how fast Gosling picked things up. In addition to the piano playing, Gosling and Stone also did all of their own singing and dancing. No autotune. No voice doubles. No professional dancing stand-ins. They trained for three or four months to get all the music and dancing down. I can definitely appreciate it when that much time and effort is put into a movie role. Even in bad movies, if an actor spends that much time preparing, I will be impressed.

While I haven't ever worked in the film industry, I would wager a bet that most movies, if not all, have a lot of heart and soul poured into them. At least by a portion of the cast and crew. Sadly that doesn't always equate to a great movie. There's also plenty of movies that have gone through a whole host of production issues and conflicts with cast and crew during various stages of filmmaking that have turned out to be masterpieces. So the fact that Chazelle, Gosling and Stone all poured their heart and soul into this project doesn't necessarily mean that this movie was guaranteed to succeed and it doesn't mean that you are all guaranteed to love it. But in my opinion this is a scenario where all the stars did align to make a nearly perfect movie. Chazelle had a brilliantly perfect idea. Perhaps an idea that only comes around once in a generation. Not only did he have such a good idea, but his execution as a director was phenomenal. He was also fortunate to have a cast and a crew who shared his enthusiasm for this project and delivered equally impressive results. Time and effort added to phenomenal results is what I hope turns into a lot of gold trophies come Oscar season. At the very least, though, I hope it translates into tickets purchased by general audiences.

Now that I've buttered up the movie thus far, how about some specific details as to what it was that I loved about this. To start off with, this is a musical. And I enjoy musicals. But as I mentioned earlier, this is a musical that tried to capture the magic of the Golden Age musicals and it totally succeeds in that. The very opening scene sees a bunch of people stuck in frustrating Los Angeles traffic. One person gets out and starts singing. Then a whole bunch of other people join in and suddenly we are treated to an absolutely delightful musical number. While watching that I had a giant smile on my face. I leaned back in my seat and prepared myself for a fantastic ride. And a fantastic ride is exactly what I got. If you're a fan of older musicals, this movie is going to be a nostalgic treat that you probably never thought you were going to ever get again. The music is great. The choreographed dancing was perfect. The set pieces were fantastic. The color schemes were beautiful. The movie is an amazing love letter to old Hollywood and is magical in every way. Thus it becomes a huge breath of fresh air in a day that sometimes seems that mainstream Hollywood has lost its touch.

Despite how magical this movie in terms of recapturing the magic of old Hollywood, that's not the only thing that makes this movie so great. After a grand and glorious opening scene that had me prepared for a delightful adventure, the movie actually took a turn I wasn't expecting. While managing to still be delightfully awesome, suddenly I found myself immersed into this incredible journey of our two main characters. What surprised me about this is I felt that I was vicariously watching the story of my life through these two characters. Metaphorically, of course. I'm not an actor or a singer. But the parallels were incredible. And it cut deep to the very soul. I don't think I'm alone in this, either, because this is a realistic movie about what it's like to be a dreamer. A human being living life. And it's a movie that gets it. I feel like everyone can put themselves into the shoes of Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling and be touched by their journey. I don't want to dive into their journey because I want that to be a surprise for you, but it's not some Hollywood fairytale. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, despite being two of the most perfect human beings to grace this earth, manage to become everyday people who are living everyday lives and the things they go through are realistic, everyday events that me and you go through. Life is not a fairy tale and neither is this movie.

I will admit that there was a moment or two where I didn't know where this movie was going or it felt a bit long. But when we got to the final act, everything makes perfect sense and I thought back to those initial moments and realized they were absolutely perfect and exactly what the movie needed to be. That's one of the reasons why this movie got better the more I thought about it. Every movie that's considered one of the best movies of all time has that moment that defines the movie. That scene that everyone remembers and refers to. This movie has three of those that I can think off from the top of my head. Three moments in the movie where I was left stunned and speechless. Without spoiling anything, one of these moments is the final scene. When we hit the credits, I was almost in tears. For multiple reasons. A mixture of emotions that hits on every level regardless of what you are going through. And it does something that I think was extremely bold, but works perfectly. It's one of those movies where you are having such a good time for so many reasons that you start to wonder how it's going to wrap things up. Sometimes it's hard for movies to have a perfect ending. But La La Land hits a grand slam with its ending. I left the theater in awe.

I hope by reading this you have been able to get a feel of how great this movie was. I've done my best to explain why it is that I think this movie is so great, but I don't think I have really been able to do this movie justice in this review. Perhaps it's something that you have to experience for yourself. But please, don't let this movie slip away without you giving it a chance. If I had to describe this movie using one word, that word would be "magical." Put that in quotations and place it on the cover of the DVD. This is a movie that manages to recapture the magic of the Golden Age musical, allowing you to bask in the the glorious nostalgia by giving us a movie that we never thought we'd ever get again while at the same time being one of the most relevant films to our day and specifically everyone's personal journey. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling encapsulate what it means to be a human being with goals and aspirations and the realistic positive and negative consequences that come with that and the musical numbers, thematically speaking, manage to wrap a big, giant beautiful bow on this perfect movie. As the best movie of the year and one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time, of course I am going to give La La Land a 10/10.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review (SPOILERS)

I figured I've given it enough time that it's safe to dive into Rogue One spoilers. This month so far on this blog has been soft on the number of movie reviews that I've written. But in case you are wondering, I'm not behind on my movie watching. Just on my movie reviewing. I have plenty of reviews to get to you once life slows down a bit for me. It's been an eventful month to say the least. Before I get to all of the other movies, top priority needs to go to our new Star Wars movie, which is becoming a December tradition. If we get a new Star Wars movie every December before Christmas for the rest of my life, I won't be complaining. Unless the quality starts going to prequel quality. Then I might get upset. But with Disney now being in charge, they've realized that our galaxy far, far away is extremely large and so far with the seven episodic movies, we've mainly focused on the Skywalker family. What about everything else? I mean, there's about a thousand Star Wars books out there. Why not make a thousand Star Wars movies? Quite frankly that's a genius idea and I'm excited. With this endeavor, we start by telling in detail the story behind the opening crawl in A New Hope. A curious place to begin. Spoilers ahead, of course. But you've already all seen it, right?

In pondering how to approach this movie, I considered a few different options. Spoiler only. Spoiler and non-spoiler. Non-spoiler only. All three viable options. But I decided to follow what I did last year for The Force Awakens. Wait a few days and release a spoiler review. With this franchise, it's kinda hard to do a non-spoiler review without giving anything away. I'd have to be super vague with the whole review and thus I would only scratch the surface on what I want to talk about. In both cases with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I managed to go into the movie completely blind. I didn't read any reviews or research any spoilers. I even avoided the Rotten Tomatoes score for both. Honestly I think that's how you should experience a Star Wars movie if you're watching for the first time. If you want my non-spoiler review, this is a fun movie. Go see it. It's not as good as Episodes IV through VII, but it didn't need to be. Saying Rogue One is the fifth best Star Wars isn't an insult to Rogue One. It's a compliment to how well made the four above it are. I have a good number of nit-picks that I'll get into here in a second, but overall I had a blast with this. Both times I watched it. Boom. There's you're non-spoiler review. So now let's dive into the juicy details of this movie!

Beginning this Star Wars anthology journey with Star Wars: Episode 3.9, as I said above, is a curious choice. Out of all the stories that needed to be told in this galaxy, I don't know if this is one that really needed to be told. Certain events you can probably leave up to the imagination without having it explained to you in detail. The opening crawl of A New Hope states that we are in a period of civil war and that Rebel forces have won their first battle against the evil Galactic Empire by stealing the plans to the Death Star. Stating that in the opening crawl paints us a good picture for A New Hope, allowing us to dive right into the movie without spending a ton of time setting that up. Did we need a whole movie detailing that story when there's a plethora of Star Wars stories waiting to be told? No, we didn't. That doesn't make the movie inherently bad. It's just the economic principle of opportunity cost. By choosing to make Rogue One, you are choosing to not make any other stories that are waiting to be told. Is the opportunity worth the cost? In my opinion, not really. There's so many other stories that I probably would've rather started with and deemed more important. I would've been fine with leaving the opening crawl as the opening crawl. But hey, it is what it is. Nothing we can do.

The other problem with making this movie is that you know how it's going to end. The opening crawl of A New Hope spoils it for you. The Rebels win. They steal the plans for the Death Star. And, well, they're all probably going to die in the process. Mon Mothma's line in Return of the Jedi about many dying isn't even what clued me in on that. It's the fact that none of these characters exist in A New Hope, which starts like 10 minutes after this movie ends. So OK. We're going to have a movie where the Rebel forces steal the plans of the Death Star and all die in the process. Cool. Now I know the whole plot of the movie before they even started making it. All they needed to do was announce their plans and I knew how it was going to turn out. And guess what? There's no twists, no turns. No surprises. It plays out exactly how you would expect. To me that took just a little bit of magic out of this movie. That's the risk you take when you decide to do any sort of prequel. You have to be able to tell a good story and keep everyone's attention without having the element of surprise available to you. If you pull a Hitchcock and kill your main character, that's typically a shocking moment. When you know the character is going to die before the movie begins, there's no shock and thus you have a different cinematic experience. Thus you have to find other ways to make up for that.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I don't think Rogue One fully succeeds in pulling this off. Since there's no option of having an "I am your father" moment in this movie, what this movie needed to do instead was write some really good characters with a lot of depth that just makes us ache inside knowing what their fate is. There's a lot of disaster movies that successfully pull this off. Yes, when you go into a movie like Titanic, you know the final result of the movie. But the story told and the characters written are so good that the lack of shock value doesn't deter the movie at all. I know this is a contrary opinion, but I think this is where Rogue One severely lacks. We had a team of Rebel forces that we knew were all going to die, but there's only one of them that I actually cared about. Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso. Quite frankly, she's also the only main character whose name I even remembered after my first viewing. I have to train my mind to even remember the names of Cassian Andor, Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus, Saw Gerrera and Bodhi Rook. In fact, I had to go to IMDb just now to type all those up to make sure I got them right. When I don't feel like I have an established emotional connection to 90 percent of our main cast, that's a problem.

Now to contradict myself a bit and I'll do my best to make sense. Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Saw and Bodhi are all well-written, well-acted characters. There's a diversity among them that I appreciate. None of them are Jedi. They all fit very well as a team. There's a lot of good moments of character development and honest team building as themes trust, or the lack of it, is very prevalent. They have cool weapons, awesome outfits, fascinating personalities. They are good characters. I just didn't feel an established connection with anyone besides Jyn. We didn't know their story. We didn't know their motivations. We barely knew why they were there. Sure, you could argue that we don't have time to set up all their characters in depth. But my counter argument is that our Star Wars movie last year had an equal number of new characters to set up and successfully made me care about all of them. I didn't need to go to IMDb to look up the names of Rey, Finn, Poe or Kylo Ren. They were immediately ingrained in my mind as characters I loved because not only were they well-written characters, but they also had fascinating backstories that The Force Awakens took time to set up while remaining focused on the story happening in the present. There was a balance there that The Force Awakens nailed that I think Rogue One missed the mark on, which was disappointing.

Here's the thing. If you make me sit down and search my soul as to why I love Star Wars (which I did last year - I reviewed all six movies leading up to The Force Awakens), it's the characters and the story of what they go through that makes it so great. Luke, Han and Leia all have absolutely fantastic story arcs throughout the original trilogy. Darth Vader's arc is so good that he has become the most iconic villain in movie history. It's not Darth Vader's outfit or powers that make him stand so far above the rest. They are more or less just the frosting on the cake. Cool outfits don't equate to great villains. But great villains with cool outfits are even better. Then there's a whole host of amazing side characters in the original trilogy that garnish the movies even better. The Force Awakens also got this right as I absolute love the story of our new Skywalker cousins, Rey and Kylo Ren. Then we have so many interesting characters to supplement their story that it was beautiful. Those whining that it was a remake of A New Hope I think missed the mark with how amazing the characters and character arcs in the movie were. But I suppose that's a discussion for another day. The prequels missed the mark in part because of the lack of well-written, believable characters. It was style over substance for George Lucas there and 10+ years later, the style doesn't even hold up.

My point here is that when you make a Star Wars movie, I expect there to be a cast of great characters who I care about and I expect to be in love with the story that unfolds and the journey that the characters go on. Rogue One successfully pulls this off with Jyn Erso and her father Galen Erso. I thought that opening scene with Jyn as a child watching her mother get killed and her father get captured (or recaptured?) by the Empire. I love idea that Galen decided to give in and help them design the Death Star as if he was fully submitting to be on their side, although secretly adding in an element without the Empire's knowledge that makes it easy for the Death Star to get blown up, then setting up a way for those plans to be stolen. That answers the age old question of why in the heck would the Empire build this Death Star, yet make it easy to blow up. Well, they didn't. Galen Erso, an enemy of the Empire, put that in there. Genius. I love the journey Jyn goes on as an adult. This self-discovery and heroism amidst the conflicted Rebel alliance. Then watching her succeed and concluding her story with her on the beach with whose-his-face telling her that her father would be proud right before she gets blown up in a mission of self-sacrifice, shortly after tragically watching her father die, was beautiful. Watching her die was heartbreaking for me.

As far as characters go, though, that's all that this movie had going for it. We had one absolutely phenomenal character arc and a whole handful of replaceable sidekicks whose names I can't even remember. The great thing about the other Star Wars movies is that we have a phenomenal main arc with a lot of beautifully written side arcs woven in to make one giant masterpiece of a saga. Rogue One misses the mark a bit for me in those terms. On top of that, the stories of how almost half of this movie was reshot was well covered in the media. And it sadly kinda shows. Not just because almost all the major trailer shots and lines from the first two trailers are completely M.I.A., but the first half of the movie is fairly choppy and poorly paced in my opinion. I had a hard time staying awake, to be honest. Both times I saw it. Certain sequences felt patched together, other sequences felt like they were in there just for the sake of being in there. Like Darth Vader. Apparently one major reason for the reshoots was to add more Darth Vader. And his two scenes he was in, despite being completely awesome and boss, felt like it was added in as an afterthought because they needed Vader in. I guess for some reason they felt like they didn't need him in the movie but made the decision afterwards that they had to have him? I wanted Vader to be either an essential part of the story or not in the movie at all. I don't like how Vader was used only for the sake of fan service.

I feel like I've spent most of this review complaining. I suppose I do so because I keep hearing from people that this is heads and shoulders above The Force Awakens and is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. A few have even said that this is the best Star Wars movie ever made. I know everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that floors me and thus I now feel like defending Episodes IV through VII, explaining why I think they were all better than Rogue One. But hey, it's my philosophy that if we are going to have Star Wars movies for the rest of our lives because Disney now owns Star Wars, not all of them need to be epic masterpieces. It's OK if we have Star Wars movies that are simply good. And we don't need to paint this black and white line where if a Star Wars movie doesn't live up to our lofty expectations than it is automatically a bad movie. Rogue One is a good movie. It is not a great movie. But it's a good movie. Despite Jyn being the only character with a ton of depth, the other characters are still good characters that look cool and do awesome things. They hit a home run with the new droid K-2SO, who might be the second best character behind Jyn. And holy cow were the action sequences fantastic. It may be style over substance this time around, but that style was absolutely phenomenal. I loved the last act of this movie!

If you can't tell, I'm passionate about my Star Wars. I didn't even mean to make this a super long review. I was going to make it a normal review in terms of length. But I suppose when you get me talking about Star Wars, I get carried away and I have to dive deep into what I think. There's a lot more that could be said, but I think I've covered the gist of what I feel. I love Jyn Erso's arc. I think she has to be catalogued among the great Star Wars characters and major props to Felicity Jones for that. I think the first two acts of the movie were a bit slow and choppy, but I think we had a phenomenal third act that makes you want to go home and watch A New Hope because it literally runs right into A New Hope. I just didn't feel a strong connection to our other characters or our overall story. Thus I think this is the fifth best Star Wars movie. A few last-minute throw-ins real quick. Forest Whitaker's voice is Forest Whitaker's voice. I had no problem with that. I also had no problem with CGI Tarkin, although I don't think we should make a habit of doing that. This should remain the exception, not the rule. Michael Giacchino's score didn't hold a candle to John Williams' scores, but it wasn't bad. The cinematography and visual effects were phenomenal, making this look and feel like a Star Wars movie. I think that covers it? My grade for Rogue One is an 8/10.

Links to my other Star Wars reviews:

The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
The Revenge of the Sith
A New Hope
The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi
The Force Awakens

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Moonlight Review

One of best parts of Oscar season is that there's always at least one movie that comes out of nowhere to be a phenomenal success in terms of everyone's reaction to the movie. If I'm being honest, I follow movie news so closely that it's hard for a movie to sneak up on me. I'm especially a sucker for the Oscars as I follow the Oscar predictions year round. Thus in addition to all the big blockbusters, I'm usually pretty good at keeping up on what the major Oscar contenders are. I enjoy having this knowledge of what's coming out, big or small. But I do love it when a movie can sneak up on me. Moonlight was the most recent example of this. I started hearing buzz from this movie when it hit the film festival rounds in September. It wasn't one of the highly anticipated festival hits. Unknown director. Mostly unknown cast. But once it started being viewed, slowly word of mouth caught fire and before too long it was officially on my radar due to how positive the buzz was. I didn't know much about it. I didn't even watch a trailer. But people loved it, so I became excited. I caught it in a local theater a week or so back and I will say that this is a good movie worth seeing. If I'm being honest, I'm not as madly in love with it as some people are. But yet there's still a lot to love here.

As far as what this movie is about, I'll do my best to talk in code so I don't spoil anything or even hint at certain things, but the basic overview is that this movie is about a black kid named Chiron growing up in Miami in some pretty harsh conditions. He's not the biggest fan of this thing called school and his mother is not quite the best example in the world. And the movie is split in three parts. Early life. Mid life. Adult life. So a somewhat comparable title here is Boyhood, another movie about a young kid growing up and experiencing life. Although Moonlight is not quite as long, detailed or epic as Boyhood. And it didn't take 12 years to film. Some saw the whole 12 year process as a gimmick in Boyhood. I saw it as a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime movie experience that will not, or at least should not be replicated. Other similar movies like Forest Gump or Moonlight have to play the recasting game for each stage in the person's life, which is tricky in its own right and a rather brilliant aspect of this movie that I will get to in a second. Boyhood kept the same cast for 12 years, coming back each year for a few weeks to film another segment of life and thus we literally got to watch this family grow up on screen over the course of three hours and I absolutely loved that experience.

Moonlight is a similar experience, but on a much smaller scale. I will say that there is a lot more to this movie than just watching Chiron grow up in a harsh Miami environment, but I'm not going to touch that with a 39 1/2 foot pole. That's called spoilers. This review would definitely be a much different review if I talked about those spoilers and thus there is enough substance here for a spoiler review, but I don't think that's going to happen. Just come talk to me after you see it and we can talk. All I'll really say is that there are two comparable titles to Moonlight that have come out in recent years that everyone but me practically drooled all over. I had certain issues with those two movies for certain reasons and thus when I pondered over how Moonlight approached it, I was much more pleased. It felt much more organic, real and genuine instead of the forced, pandering, political approach that the other two movies took. I hope that doesn't give anything away. My goal with this paragraph is to discuss an element of this movie that needs discussing and do so in a way that those who have seen it will know what I'm talking about while those who haven't will be confused.

Enough of that, now. I want to talk about the cast in this movie. As I referenced earlier, this takes the route of recasting Chiron each time we enter a new phase of his life instead of either trying to use makeup and hairstyle magic to make the same actor look older. Chiron's mother is played by Naomi Harris in all three stages, but Chiron is always different. I was super impressed with all three actors who played Chiron. He has certain personality traits and mannerisms that could've easily been lost with each new phase of his life, but each actor did a phenomenal job preserving the character and giving the audience the feel that this is the same character. It was as believable as Boyhood, which did use the same actor for the whole 12 years. Thus I have to give major props to Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who played Chiron. Equal props go to Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jarome and André Holland who play Chiron's friend Kevin. In both cases this felt like the same character each phase, thus the movie maintained a perfect continuity throughout the whole movie without losing anything as it went, which was very important for the specific story they set out to tell.

Next I want to talk about the supporting cast around Chiron. As I said earlier, I follow the Oscar buzz pretty closely and after Moonlight started catching fire, the huge name that has come up for this movie is Mahershala Ali for best supporting actor. In fact, he has enough momentum that he could end up unanimously walking away with trophy as the representative of Moonlight at the Oscars in case La La Land wins in all the other categories that Moonlight is going to get nominated for. With the "Oscars So White" controversy exploding last year, I'm sure the Academy will be anxious to bestow Mahershala with a trophy to prove to the world they aren't racist. It will shut everyone up. But will the win be deserved. Well, mostly. I won't dive into his character too much, but I will say he did a great job and his character is deep and fascinating. But he's only in a small portion of the movie. Did he get enough screen time to deserve an Oscar win? I don't think so. I'd rather see one of the Chirons get something or perhaps Naomi Harris. She was phenomenal in the movie as well and was in for much longer. Janelle Monáe would also be a great candidate. Or the Oscars could create a best ensemble cast category and give that award to this movie. That would be most appropriate here.

There's a lot more to say with this movie, but in an effort to preserve your experience, I am going to call this good. There's a lot of people that are crowning this the best movie of the year, which is why I got so excited to see this. Perhaps I went into the movie with my expectations a little too high, hoping to see yet another masterpiece (I've seen two in the last couple of months that I deemed worthy of perfect scores). A masterpiece is not what I got. This movie didn't blow my mind or make me stop and think for hours on end. Instead I got a very well put together movie that has some great, honest, real themes that I enjoyed. Instead of this being the next Boyhood for me, I think a better comparison would be Room and Brooklyn. Two very different movies from Moonlight, but two movies that were both touted as the best movie of the year. Neither ended up making my top 10 list from last year but both were solid movies worth seeing. I suppose not every movie needs to blow your mind. We don't have to jump onto IMDb and give movies either a 10/10 or a 1/10 with no middle ground like you often see when you check out user reviews. It's OK to have a movie that is simply a good, solid movie. And that's what Moonlight is. A good, solid movie that I will award an 8/10.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Allied Review

The movie that ruined Brad Pitt's marriage? Well, no. But that's the conclusions that the internet immediately jumped to after Hollywood's favorite marriage sadly ended a month before Brad's new romance movie was released. I mean, the narrative was there. Brad falls in love with Marion Collitard on set and cheats on Angelina. Angelina finds out, gets angry, then files for divorce. Marion shows up pregnant to the premier with Brad being super happy. But that's what you get for jumping to conclusions. Marion was quick to shut down those rumors, stating that the father of her baby is her long time boyfriend and the two are still happily together. Something else ruined Brad and Angelina's marriage and maybe it's best not to pry into the personal life. But since I brought it up in my November preview, I'd figure it's probably best that I do my part to shut it down. Moving on, let's talk about this movie that had me absolutely captivated from the moment I saw that first trailer. It was one of my most anticipated movies of November. But like many of my highly anticipated movies from 2016, this is yet another film that fell victim to disappointment. Instead of being a highly intense thriller, this movie is instead a boring, predictable slog. Man, this has been a mean year.

Allied follows Brad Pitt and Marion Collitard as two secret agents of sorts during World War II. Brad is a Canadian intelligence officer while Marion is a French resistance fighter. The two get teamed up as a fake married couple and are assigned to assassinate a German ambassador. Turns out pretending to be a married couple becomes quite easy as the two fall in love and get married after their mission is complete. They move to London and have a daughter. Life is all hunky-dory, right? Turns out Marion is suspected of being a German spy and Brad is told that if this is true, his order will be to kill her. Yikes! That's harsh! That premise is what drew me into this film. All of the advertising was focused on this idea that Brad might have to kill his wife, which is quite the predicament and I was excited to see how it all unfolded and I was ready for an intense ride. Turns out me saying this is almost a spoiler. This whole love story between Brad and Marion takes up a huge portion of time. In fact, them getting married and moving to London is practically the mid-point of the movie. Yet I don't know how to talk about this movie without discussing the movie that was advertised and how it held up to my expectations. So, uh, sorry. I think. I won't spoil the movie, but I am talking about it.

First off, we have to discuss a huge elephant in the room. This movie is trying super hard to be a modern-day Casablanca. I mean, it doesn't take a movie expert to figure that out. Yes, Casablanca is one of the all-time classics and a fantastic movie in my opinion. But if you've never seen the movie, you've at least heard the title and that title is said on many occasions in this movie. Allied is set in the city of Casablanca during World War II at about the same exact time as the movie Casablanca. And they can't stop reminding us that they are in Casablanca. That kinda got old. I was like, I get it. Both movies even have a similar general setup with a forbidden romance of sorts during World War II. And I suppose if we were trying to do a modern-day Casablanca and we were forced to cast the best two modern-day actors to take the roles of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Brad Pitt and Marion Collitard are excellent choices. Those two are two of the best in the business that everyone loves. Their chemistry in the movie is off the charts. The problems of this movie have nothing to do with Brad and Marion's performances. And trying to be a modern-day Casablanca is not a bad thing since this isn't a remake. This just isn't anywhere close to Casablanca in terms of quality.

Boring and drawn-out are the two best adjectives for this movie. It's not that every bit of advertising revealed how this romance would turn out and so you are just waiting for the movie to get to the point. It's that the whole first half of the movie is completely uninteresting. I'm certainly not anti-romance. I love myself a well put together romance film. Casablanca is a perfect example of that. You're fully invested in every moment of that movie and you are excited and intrigued about how everything is going to play out. Every scene has a purpose and a meaning behind it. Allied is the exact opposite. Just about every scene could've been down and edited more sharply. Certain scenes didn't even need to be in the movie. A lot of extra dialogue was included that did nothing for the film. The beginning of this movie failed to capture my attention and the rest of the movie did nothing to bring me on board. This is 124 minutes of a movie that felt like it was three hours long. Once they finally fell in love and moved to London, I was about ready to be done with the movie. That seemed like a nice little climax. We can tie a pretty bow on that and call it a wrap and all be happy that they lived happily ever after. But no, we still had a second half of a movie to get through.

No, nothing improves in the second half. I was hoping that once we got into the whole drama of Brad Pitt being ordered to kill his wife if what they are thinking is true that we would have a fast-paced movie that left you on the edge of your seat. Nope. That's not the case. Everything is still stretched out and boring as if they had an hour's worth of content that they decided to put into two hours of movie. And the finale is pretty much exactly what you would expect. I won't spoil the movie, but instead I'll speak in code. Once you learn what is going on, there are only two paths that the movie could take. Path 1 and Path 2. Path 1 would make for a really dumb movie, so you know they are going for Path 2. But in Path 2, there seem to be only two options to how the movie could end. Ending 1 and Ending 2. Based on certain reasonings, you get the feeling that Ending 2 is the route they will take. The only thing that is left a secret is the specific Grand Finale. When a movie is supposed to be a thriller, but you can reason with yourself and map things out in your head with a high level of confidence as to what's going to happen and the movie makes no attempt at shock value and instead just kinda slowly goes through the motions, it's really not that exciting of an experience.

I walked out of this movie feeling empty. As I was leaving the theater and going to my car, I asked myself what the point of this movie was. I came up blank. I had no clue. Due to me being behind on my movie reviews, I've actually had two weeks to ponder this movie over. I saw this on opening night, November 22. I put off seeing Moana because of my excitement level for this. Turns out that ended up being a lose-lose situation because neither movie was that great, but this was definitely the worst of the two. After thinking about it for two weeks, I still don't know what the point of this movie was. In fact, not only did nothing come to my mind, but I'm glad I didn't wait too long to review this because I've already almost completely forgotten that this movie existed. Brad Pitt and Marion Collitard do great and have amazing chemistry. The movie does a great job with it's cinematography and visuals and pulling off the 1940's World War II setting. Costume design and set design are excellent. The score was OK. But there's zero substance to this. If you haven't seen this yet, don't bother. Go watch Casablanca again. Or anything else. This is far from the worst movie I've seen this year, but it's not worth paying money for or spending two hours on. I'm giving Allied a 6/10.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Movie Preview: December 2016

The holiday season is in full swing and so is Hollywood with their major holiday releases. November wasn't the biggest November at the box office in recent memory, but it did carry with it several huge hits with Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moana and Trolls all finding major success. Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge also experienced healthy box office runs in their own right. All eyes will be on Disney in December as their first experimental Star Wars movie will hit theaters right in the middle of the month with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. However, despite all the focus being on more Star Wars, there's certainly plenty of other studios that will be fighting for everyone's attention as this will be a crowded as usual Christmas season. Not only will we have plenty of Blockbuster hopefuls hoping to provide counter-programming to Rogue One during the season, which did work for several movies last year during The Force Awakens domination, but it's also Oscar season! Plenty of movies have already hit the festival runs and screened early for awards voters and will now be making their theatrical runs to be officially eligible. So in addition to discussing the wide releases, I'll touch on the major highlights in the awards races as well. Let's begin!

December 2nd - 4th-

The opening weekend of December is one that big studios always avoid like the plague for some reason. As such, Moana is looking to easily take the title for a second straight weekend after being praised by critics and audiences alike and will probably play really well throughout the season. Following behind Moana will be Fantastic Beasts, Allied, ArrivalDoctor Strange, Trolls, Hacksaw Ridge, Almost Christmas and Bad Santa 2. It's only after all of those movies where our only wide release will land and that is the horror movie Incarnate. It's been a great year for horror as The Conjuring 2, Don't Breathe, Lights Out and The Shallows being horror movies that all finished above $50 million domestically. Incarnate won't be one of those. Instead it will follow last month's Shut In, which opened to $3.6 million in 2,058 theaters and September's The Disappointments Room, which opened to $1.4 million in 1,554 theaters. Incarnate is opening in 1,737 theaters and is tracking right between those two movies. Incarnate is about a boy being possessed by a demon and a scientist who can enter the subconscious of a person to try to stop it. Aaron Eckhart stars and Brad Peyton (San Andreas, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) is the director.

Sneaking into 639 theaters and thus looking to make even less than Incarnate is Releasing's Freestyle Releasing's Believe. As you could probably tell from the title, this is another small faith-based film. There's plenty examples of movies from this genre doing great at the box office, but more examples of small faith-based films that sneak into a handful of theaters and picking up a few bucks before heading to DVD in order to appeal to a more niche Christian audience. This movie fits into that latter category. Believe is about a business owner who is looking to save the Christmas pageant in his small town.

On the Oscar front, best picture hopefuls such as Moonlight, Loving, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals and Lion are the major Oscar contenders that either opened or played well in November that will continue to expand and play throughout December with awards season being upon us. Adding to that mix this weekend will be Jackie. The Critics Choice Awards nominations recently came out and Jackie was almost completely left off of that list outside an acting nomination for Natalie Portman. Fox Searchlight will hope that that's not a sign of things to come. The movie is about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy and how she handled things following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Natalie Portman stars as Mrs. Kennedy and is getting a lot of overall praise for her role and will be looking for her third Oscar nomination. She previously won for Black Swan.

December 9th - 11th-

There's also only one wide release on the second weekend of December and that is Office Christmas Party. It's entirely possible that Moana could three-peat this weekend at the box office, depending on how well it holds and how high Office Christmas Party opens. Office Christmas Party is the third Christmas-themed comedy of the season following Almost Christmas and Bad Santa 2. Almost Christmas performed decently two weekends before Thanksgiving with a $15.1 million opening while Bad Santa 2 flopped hard on the weekend of Thanksgiving with only a $6.2 million opening. It seems fairly clear that Office Christmas Party will be the go to Christmas comedy of this season and will outgross both of those two movies. The big sell here, outside the obvious Christmas-themed setting, is the cast, which includes Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon and Rob Corddry. The movie is about a CEO who is trying to close her brother's branch and he throws a giant Christmas party to cover that up and impress a potential client.

While Office Christmas Party will be the only wide release, five theaters this weekend will be graced by the presence of the best picture frontrunner in La La Land. An expansion will follow in the upcoming weeks as this looks to play very well throughout awards season following almost unanimously strong praise during a successful festival run. This is director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2014 film Whiplash, which received a best picture nomination and a best supporting actor win for J.K. Simmons. With La La Land, Chazelle hopes to bring back the magic of the Golden Age musical while implementing modern themes focused on following your dreams and the positive and negative consequences that come with that. The movie stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the lead roles, who both do all of their own signing, dancing and performing. Stone plays an aspiring actress while Gosling plays an aspiring jazz musician. The two cross paths one day and start a relationship and have to figure out how to balance their very different lives.

December 16th - 18th-

And now right in the middle of the month will be the big movie that everyone is looking forward to with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This will be the first time that the Star Wars movie universe will stray away from the Skywalker story that has dominated all previous seven Star Wars movies. Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and company's story will continue next year. Right now we're taking a break from that to experience our first Star Wars spin-off movie. This first spin-off centers around the story behind the opening crawl in A New Hope, wherein it states that "Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR." So you can technically call this another prequel, although spin-off is still probably the best designation. Leading the charge in this movie will be Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso with Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna and Ben Mendelsohn being among those going along for the ride. The big question here is how well will this do. With this being the first Star Wars spin-off, there's no historical comparison or precedence to look at. Spin-offs in general don't do quite as well as the main story arcs, but if this performs well enough, you can count on there being Star Wars movies of some sort until the end of time since this is Disney in control and there are a lot of stories in the galaxy far, far away waiting to be told.

There's only one movie directly challenged Rogue One this weekend and that will be Collateral Beauty. Before you scoff at Collateral Beauty for attempting this, note that last year Daddy's Home, Sisters, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Joy all performed well during the holiday season despite the presence of The Force Awakens. So there's plenty of money to go around during the Christmas season. Collateral Beauty seems to be an interesting mix of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Will Smith plays a man that has gone through a major tragedy and retreats from life, writing letters to Love, Death and Time. He unexpectedly receives personal visitations from these three who come to knock a bit of sense into him, much like Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey in the aforementioned movies referenced. In addition to Will Smith, this movie also features Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Naomie Harris, Helen Mirren and Michael Peña.

December 21st - 25th-

This is where things get really crowded and a bit complicated. We have a whole slew of movies getting released around Christmas and on several different dates. I'll start here with the movies released right before Christmas, either on Wednesday the 21st or Friday the 23rd. Opening wide on the 21st are three movies. The first of these is Passengers, our annual big-budget space movie. Not counting Star Wars that is. I'm referring to Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014 and The Martian in 2015. Being that this is in the same genre as Rogue One, this has the potential to be hurt most by Rogue One, but it has enough going for it that it should be fine. Two of Hollywood's biggest stars will be side by side in this with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. You can't go wrong with those two right now. Having them together is a huge win. In Passengers, Pratt and Lawrence are two passengers on a spacecraft traveling to a distant colony. With the journey being long, the passengers on the ship are in some sort of hibernation mode. Due to a malfunction, Pratt and Lawrence are woken up 90 years early. The movie is directed by Morten Tyldum, who recently directed The Imitation Game, movie that eight Oscar nominations including best picture, best director and multiple acting nominations.

Next up is the latest movie from an animation studio that is on fire right now. That's Illumination's Sing. At this point Illumination definitely deserves to be included in the conversation with the big boys of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks when it comes to animation as they have now accomplished something that none of those other three have ever accomplished. Have three straight movies earn over $300 million at the domestic box office. Illumination's last three movies have all done that with Despicable Me 2, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets. With the phenomenal success of The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination proved that they are more than just a one trick pony with their Despicable Me franchise, so at this point until they experience a huge disappointment, it's hard to bet against them. The fact Sing is the only family-aimed movie to be released in December should only help it's case as its only direct competition will be the month-old Moana. The best way to describe Sing is that it is a fictional, animated version of American Idol but with animals instead of people. While this sounds strange, it also has a monster voice cast of actors and singers that includes Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johannson, John C. Reilly, Teron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Leslie Jones, Jennifer Saunders and Jennifer Hudson.

The movie from December 21 that has the biggest uphill battle to climb will be the highly anticipated Assassin's Creed. Warcraft and Assassin's Creed were the two huge video games this year that essentially held the future of video game movies in their hands. If these two succeeded then more would surely follow. If they failed, then perhaps Hollywood would less enthusiastic about continually trying with this genre. It's hard to judge the success of Warcraft. It flopped miserably in the states and was panned by critics. Warcraft fans seemed to be the only people who liked the movie. But then you have China where the movie earned $220.8 million, which was more than The Force Awakens made over there by $100 million. The Assassin's Creed video game franchise is one of the most popular video game franchises out there. But will it translate? This will probably depend solely on reviews. If they are positive, this could be a hit. If they are negative, then this could be our Christmas flop. Working in the movies favor is a cast led by Michael Fassbender and Marion Collitard.

The one wide release deciding to join the party late this weekend by coming out on Friday the 23rd is Why Him? This is the second R-rated comedy of the month following Office Christmas Party. While there is enough space between the two movies for both of them to be a success, the disadvantage of Why Him? is that due to Office Christmas Party's Christmas theme it could still be playing fairly well this weekend and split fans of the genre. Why Him? is not Christmas-themed, but is about a father who is unhappy that his daughter has chosen to date a wild, party animal. This is Bryan Cranston vs. James Franco as Cranston plays the father while Franco plays the boyfriend. Franco is a comedy veteran at this point, which is an advantage for the movie. Sisters proved last year that a raunchy comedy during Christmas is good counter-programming for a Star Wars movie, so that's another potential advantage.

Three major limited release movies will also hit theaters right before Christmas. The goal with these movies is to officially submit their eligibility for awards season with a limited release, but due to a crowded market will wait till January to expand and shoot for box office success. I'll talk about these more in my January preview more in-depth since there's already been plenty to talk about here, but the first of these three is Silence. This is the latest film from Martin Scorsese and is about two Jesuit priests in the 16th century who travel to Japan to search for their mentor in a time where Christianity in Japan was outlawed. Patriot's Day is Peter Berg's latest film adaptation of a recent news story starring Mark Wahlberg, the first two being Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon. Patriot's Day is a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the ensuing hunt to find the bombers. A Monster Calls was supposed to be released in October, but decided to do the festival run instead and thus postponed it's release to December, then again decided to go for a limited run first and expand later. It's about a tree monster who helps a young boy deal with his mom's terminal illness. A Monster Calls will expand January 6, Patriots Day on January 13 and Silence to be determined.

December 25th - January 1st-

On Christmas Day there will be one wide release and two major limited releases. There's actually no new wide releases on the weekend of December 30th through January 1st, which is why I dated it the way I did. Anyways, the one wide release on Christmas is a big one in terms of the awards races and that is Denzel Washington's Fences. This is based on the popular play that was written by the late August Wilson in 1983. Fences won the 1987 Pulizer Prize for drama and the 1987 Tony Award for best play. It's set in the 1950's and follows an African-American father struggling with race relations in the United States while trying to raise a family. This movie adaptation of the play is directed and produced by Denzel Washington, who also stars in the film alongside Viola Davis. This is Denzel's third directorial effort following Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007). Fences is set to get a long list of Oscar nominations and right now is positioned as the biggest competitor for La La Land for the coveted prize of best picture. Denzel should double up in the director and actor categories.

Two more major limited releases will hit theaters this weekend. However, for these two movies their expansions will depend on how well they play in limited release as well as how many Oscar nominations they get, neither of which is guaranteed with these two. I'll talk briefly about both. The first is 20th Century Women. This is the story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California in the late 1970's. Those three women are played by Annette Benning, Elle Fanning and Gretta Gerwig. There's a good chance a gold trophy is heading Annette Benning's way for this role. One is certainly heading Elle Fanning's way in the future with all the major roles she's being cast in, but now is not the time. A bigger uphill climb will be in the future for Hidden Figures, our other major limited release. This is about a team of African-American women who provide NASA with important mathematical data to launch their first successful space missions. This seems to be bubbling under in several major categories, but could wind up with nothing on Oscar nomination morning. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and/or Janelle Monáe hope to play spoiler.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Moana Review

Earlier this year on this blog I took the opportunity to rank all 55 movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios. If you remember that list, or go back and look at it, you'll know that I've been pretty high on Disney recently. Following a bit of a lull in the late 90's and 2000's both financially and in terms of quality (with some major exceptions, of course), Disney roared back in the 2010's with quite the successful string of movies that continually blew me away. We're talking about Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. Frozen and Tangled were great modern-day Disney princess movies. Wreck-It Ralph was great for fans of 80's video games and Big Hero 6 was great for fans of superhero movies. Zootopia managed to come almost out of nowhere to top all of these modern Disney films by being very deep and relevant. And very adult as it legitimately scared kids and thematically probably went right over their head. I had no reason to believe Moana would be any different. According to critics (98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb), it has been another huge success. For me it was a bit of a miss, though. I realize this puts me in a huge minority, but hear me out as I explain my point of view with this movie.

Before we go any further, allow me to make a quick differentiation. I'll be simple by calling these Disney films from here on out, but know that I am specifically referring to Walt Disney Animation Studios. Not DisneyToon Studios. Not Pixar Animation Studios. Despite all being owned by Disney, these are three separate animation studios. I have links there so you know which movies belong where. Moana is the 56th film in the Walt Disney Animation Studios cannon and second of 2016 following Zootopia. And it was very smartly positioned as a Thanksgiving release. In 2013, Frozen was a fellow Disney princess musical released at Thanksgiving that was so well-liked that it became a huge box office success and turned into a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, it became such a big phenomenon that it quickly created an equal number of enemies. But Disney doesn't care about that as Anna and Elsa material still sell like wildfire with young girls. I've always been on the pro-Frozen side and I have the ability to staunchly defend it, but now is not the time for that. Only time will tell if Moana can replicate this success, but Disney did their best to hit all the same notes. They're off on the right foot with the box office numbers. For me it just didn't work.

Now I'm not going to say this is a bad movie. It isn't. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd definitely recommend you go give it a shot, especially if you have younger kids. They will all almost assuredly love it and you probably will, too. But for me this was just a middle-of-the-pack Disney movie. In the cannon of now 56 movies, I would put it at #35. Tell you the truth most of those 56 movies are decent movies. There's only a small handful of Disney movies that I would say are outright bad. Home on the Range and Chicken Little are two of them if you want examples. But for the most part Disney has consistently made good movies for about 80 years now, so #35 for Moana isn't nearly as bad as it may initially seem when you look at my list. The big takeaway is that I didn't see anything special from Moana. In terms of story, characters, and music it's about as basic as you can get for a Disney film without falling into the bad category. When I say they did their best to hit all the same notes that made Frozen successful, I honestly think they went bare minimum with all those notes. Everything felt very safe and it didn't feel like they tried to go out of their way to make something special that will stand out in a very crowded library of Disney movies.

In getting into the specifics, let's start off with the characters. First off, I love that Disney has made an effort to have more strong female characters recently to balance out all their damsels in distress they did in the old days. It's refreshing. Especially when you get the girl power in Frozen where the charming prince does NOT save the day. It's all Anna and Elsa. The title character of Moana adds to this list of strong female characters. She's also the first Polynesian Disney princess, which is cool. It's good that we're getting culturally diverse here. But outside her ethnicity, what sets Moana apart from the other Disney princesses? She seemed like a combination of Anna, Rapunzel and Merida. All four of them felt trapped for a certain reason and want to get out and see the world, but had overprotective family members holding them back. Add in a touch of the nature-driven Pocahontas and boom! Moana. Nothing new. Just some recycled Disney princesses with recycled character arcs. She even had the obligatory animal sidekick with the rooster, who was far less funny than the other sidekicks. Auli'i Cravalho, who celebrated her 16th birthday on opening night, did great as the voice. But when your title character of your movie isn't interesting or unique, that's a problem.

A much more interesting character was Dwayne Johnson's Maui. Dwayne Johnson has an undeniable charm and charisma that rubs off in every role he does and this is no different. Even though he's just a voice, you can't help just loving the demigod Maui. You can tell that Dwayne Johnson had a lot of fun with this role and he's easily the best part of this movie. His character had an interesting complexity to him that I wish the other characters had. Instead everyone but Maui were just cookie-cutter Disney characters. But even with Maui, his character arc is extremely choppy. Instead of having a smooth, well-rounded character arc, it's more like a staircase. There are phases Maui goes through, but things just jump from one phase to another without a good transition. Maui and Moana did have a good chemistry as they were going on this journey, but the journey itself wasn't super interesting. Not only can you easily predict everything that's going to happen in this movie, but there's a point in the movie where the story slams to a halt and flows aimlessly almost like the literal journey on the water they take. The ending picks up, but it's the exact ending you expected from this movie with one small surprise that doesn't even shock you once you think about it.

Since this is a musical, we do need to dive into that aspect of the movie. Yes, I do like musicals, especially Disney musicals. That was one of the strong points of Frozen. It was all-around one of the best musicals Disney has done. After my first showing, I couldn't get "Let it Go" out of my head and after my second and third showings, all the songs got stuck in my head at the same time. Frozen successfully pulled off what The Lion King, AladdinBeauty and the Beast and Pocahontas did with their music. I wanted Moana to do the same thing. But it didn't. All the songs felt out of place and unnecessary. Instead of being excited that we were diving into new music, I kept wondering why our characters decided to stop and sing. That's not what I should be doing in a musical. Sure, "How Far I'll Go" is a decent song and I hope it gives Auli'i Cravahlho and/or Alessia Cara a hit, but I couldn't even hum the tune or sing the chorus for you right now. For better or for worse, it's not even close to as catchy as "Let it Go," despite it being an obvious push to be another viral hit. It even has a similar title. Personally I liked Dwayne Johnson's "You're Welcome" a lot more. Wouldn't it be great to see Dwayne Johnson get a Billboard hit? The rest of the songs... I can't even remember any of them. I could look them up and re-listen to them. But that's beside the point.

Once again, this is not a bad movie. It just felt very safe to me for Disney and nothing special. Sure, not all Disney movies have to be intense, deep and unpredictable like Zootopia. These are fairly tales after all. And this one is a Disney princess movie. But even in the other predictable Disney movies there's either a really strong message that sticks out or heartstrings that are pulled. Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph are predictable, but Big Hero 6 almost makes me cry every time I watch it and Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely adorable and touching. Moana didn't make me cry. It pulled at no heartstrings. Yes, there's a message here, but it didn't hit me with the feels and felt like a recycled message that Disney has already told recently in movies like Frozen and Tangled, but didn't do quite as good of a job. It's certainly nowhere close to as powerful as movies like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Aladdin, which are my top three Disney movies. If you loved Moana and you completely disagree with everything I've said, that's fine. I expect a lot of that and I am open to you telling me why you felt this was a top-tier Disney movie. Disney just didn't get me this time. I'm going to give Moana a 7/10.