Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hidden Figures

     In 1961, it wasn't just a man's world, but a white man's world according to Hidden Figures. In this world of inequality, three talented African-American women Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are the unsung heroes at NASA during the space race against the Russians. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are all in positions well below their skill levels, but "that's just the way it is." Even other black men make somewhat disparaging remarks about women doing the kinds of things these women do. Racism and sexism alike keep Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary minding their p's and q's. But as the space race intensifies, NASA's best minds will have to step forward, and some of those best minds may just be African American women.

      In the 1960’s, segregation is still very much a part of everyday life, with restrooms, libraries, and water fountains enforcing continued inequality and separation by Virginia state law. Back-handed comments here and there reveal barely-restrained prejudices still simmering beneath the surface, even if outright racism is restrained. Hidden Figures shows NASA as a place where there is an even mix of deliberate discrimination and indifferent obliviousness. While some employees are visibly annoyed by Katherine's presence in the Flight Research Division, others are simply oblivious to the challenges that social conventions have imposed -- such as her needing to use a restroom in another building because the restrooms are segregated.

      The cast of Hidden Figures earned a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This award was well-earned by every actor in Hidden Figures, especially from the leading ladies. The always delightful Octavia Spencer (Oscar winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Help) continues to shine, perfectly depicting subdued workplace professionalism one moment, and sterling strength the next. Newcomer Janelle Monae's electric charisma and shameless sass constantly lighten the moment while crafting a well-rounded character with conviction and purpose. Taraji P. Henson's Katherine initially seems relegated to frumpy working widow or dull genius, but Henson's portrayal of quiet determination, sweet romance, and tender motherhood make Katherine feel real and connectable, even if she is a genius.

     Of the supporting characters, one of the stand-outs is astronaut John Glenn, whose recent death makes the characterization here a timely homage. Glenn is shown as a fun and friendly gentleman with no illusions of self-importance, going out of his way to meet everyone, and kindly highlighting their importance to his mission. He almost seems too good to be true. But according to Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian, "Everybody thinks of John Glenn as this iconic war hero... and astronaut, but what's missed a lot is his humanity. Glenn was in a classic sense, a gentleman. He was always concerned about the people around him and it didn't matter what package they were in. He was a real people person" (Popular Mechanics, 2017).

      Amidst the excellent acting and inspiring story, Hidden Figures does have a few flaws. At times it seems that the writers were trying too hard to write quotable inspirational lines, but by doing so, it cheapens otherwise strong moments with forced or heavy-handed dialogue. For example, when Al Harrison hacks down the colored restroom sign, following it up with the line "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color" is hardly inspiring, and seems to be an exceptionally weak attempt at summarizing a message of equality. Beyond that, it undermines Al's intelligence as a character. Elsewhere, Mary Jackson walks into her engineering class where the instructor argues that the curriculum is not designed for teaching a woman, to which Mary earnestly replies "Well I imagine it's the same as teaching a man."

      In fairness, it is Hollywood's prerogative to embellish and dramatize, sometimes unrealistically, sometimes necessarily in order to make the story accessible to the broader audience. Bill Barry rightly remarked, "To be able to tell a story in a way that the audience can understand and make it entertaining enough for them to be able to watch, I think the scriptwriters have to be creative and find a balance between telling the exact historic details and delivering a story that is both interesting and gets the message across" (, 2016).

      One of the ways that Hidden Figures finds the balance between historical accuracy and telling an interesting story, is by using composite characters like Paul Stafford or Vivian Mitchell (played by Jim Parson and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) to represent attitudes of the world outside NASA. Vivian represents the unconscious prejudice of the time, while Paul personifies lingering racist and sexist attitudes. Interestingly, the real Katherine Johnson has said "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it" (History vs Hollywood, 2017). Yet somehow it would feel strange to show African American women in a 1961 Virginia not facing some form of thinly veiled prejudice, so it's understandable why the filmmakers made that choice.

      Hidden Figures is an inspiring story, made more so by the historical inspiration behind it. As a historical representation, it has a few missteps, but not so many that it becomes counter-historical. As entertainment, Hidden Figures absolutely soars, telling a moving story through its strong performances, and drawing attention to truly unsung heroes of space pioneering. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all real women with remarkable talents, each one contributing to the country's space efforts in their own ways. As an audience member, you feel the triumphs both great and small, from Katherine's sweet romance with Colonel Johnson, to Dorothy marching her group of "West Computers" down the hall to take over the running of the IBM. Ultimately, this classic story of overcoming adversity and being part of something greater than oneself is well worth watching.   

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Redbox Night: Prometheus

          In an earlier post that previewed this year's movies, I mentioned that I should see Prometheus since Alien: Covenant is due out later this year, and I often like Ridley Scott, and I generally like sci-fi. Last time Scott and sci-fi were together, we got The Martian, one of the best movies of that year, and possibly one of the best space-centric movies ever. 

     Prometheus could not be more opposite of The Martian in quality of writing, acting, or storytelling. It is exactly the sort of movie that rigidly structures all of its dialogue and actions around achieving specific ends rather than telling a story, playing out like a checklist to get to its labored ending, while sacrificing all the elements of quality on the altar of its own self-importance.

     Most movies that turn into suspense or horror have that painfully obvious moment where someone does something stupid to set in motion the events of the story. In Prometheus, that moment is every minute of the whole movie. Somehow someway, this big-budget prequel to the heralded Alien franchise manages to commit every single plot-driving bad decision conceivable. For that reason, this entire post is going to be an enjoyable hack job for me, providing that genuine satisfaction that can only come from a dose of mordant scathing.

     Oh but where to begin?

     To start, chew on this: paradoxically fantasy-driven scientists, who somehow convince an optimistic billionaire to fund a space mission based on the infallible evidence of ...cave drawings. They have faith that these cave drawings mean that they were invited by their creators (presumably the self-destructive albino in the opening) to come and seek them out. So, with overwhelming naiveté and stubborn resolve, they set out to find their creators, confident of being welcomed with open arms as to a long-lost grandparent. One of these scientists is the unlikely mix of dreamy, religious, and scientific. The other is so imbecile that upon finding exactly what he had hoped to, he promptly engages in a brooding smorgasbord about the complete failure that he is.

     Come to think of it, there's really no one to like in this crew. They're all either uncreative cut-outs of every stock character ever imagined, expendable idiots, or both. Even Charlize Theron is about as ineffectual as they come, being too cliché to even be a credible ice queen (which is saying something considering her history with that kind of role). She also has no real purpose other than to put a famous face in the film. The rest of the ragtag crew beg the audience to wonder how these people held employment anywhere, let alone as the leading minds of engineering, GPS mapping, or anything else. There's no one here to like, and no one here to genuinely hate; just a few you're not all that sorry to see go, and a few that seem like they deserved better. 

     Now credit where credit is due, there is exactly one interesting character in this installment, but that character is the android David, played with chilling but effective indifference by Michael Fassbender. But isn't it really pathetic that the only character who is remotely interesting isn't even human? And when I say interesting, I don't mean that he's likable-- simply that he's actually interesting. Between my incredulous scoffs at everyone else's actions, the only thing that really held my attention throughout Prometheus was wondering what David was up to. Sadly for me, his motives are never explained, and ultimately his actions are just as nonsensical as every other character. At times he seems to have a childlike wonder at exploring the questions of creation and existence, reverts to subservient machine, and inexplicably commits acts of unadulterated malice shortly after committing acts of heroism. Prometheus may be attempting to depict David coming into self-awareness, but instead the entire effort comes off as careless. 

     Back to these "scientists", what are they exactly? They seem to have a fairly broad knowledge of archaeology, geology, biology, physics, art, religion, culture, and just about everything else, yet somehow lack the general intuition to apply any of these things reasonably. They are simply dense by any standard, blithely wandering into alien structures, poking at everything, touching everything, sometimes pushing buttons, and worst of all: bringing organic alien matter aboard their ship to poke at even more. The two leading scientists who initiated this whole mission (the same two who based the mission on cave drawings) have no real grasp of archaeology, and go into a frenzied panic when the preserved items exposed to atmospheric change start to decay rapidly. When you remove something from a freezer, it starts to thaw; they don't understand this. 

     Every single decision shown onscreen is designed to enhance the plot, whether or not it's consistent with the character or the situation. Most of the dialogue seems painfully forced and often out of place, while characters constantly contradict what little development they’ve had. Example, two characters decide to abandon the survey team when they encounter a pile of extraterrestrial corpses that have clearly been decaying for quite some time. A few moments later however, one of these two expresses absolute infatuation with a live snake-like alien creature that behaves in a clearly aggressive way. Dr. Shaw's whole purpose is to meet the Engineers, humankind's creators, but even after acknowledging that they are not who she thought they were and witnessing the carnage caused by them, she obstinately decides to seek them out even further so she can ask them why they want to obliterate humans. There is a glaringly obvious flaw in this plan, but that’s where the movie ends.

     I could go on and on picking apart every last flaw of this movie, but since that would probably take about as long as the movie’s runtime, ergo a colossal waste of time, I can be satisfied with covering the basics. Suffice to say that this movie is a prime example of overdone heavy expositional dialogue, plot devices, gratuitous use of sci-fi tropes, and plot holes so large, they harpoon not only this movie, but others within the franchise. At the end of the day, Prometheus retells the same story we've already seen a number of times before: somewhere in space, an odd crew bring alien matter on board their ship, and pretty much everyone dies. Prometheus had great potential as an origin story, but wastes it all with constipated storytelling and laboring to lay the groundwork for Alien: Covenant, which will probably in turn tell that story again. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

     Since most of my childhood was passed in the 90's, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've seen Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast numerous times. I remember seeing it in the theater way back in 1991, and then watching it again and again on a trusty old VHS. With that history in mind, I went into the new live-action adaptation with fairly neutral expectations, but with every intention of giving the movie plenty of generosity to reinvent the story.

     This generosity was starting to deplete before the movie began, due to the forty-five minutes of inane previews that preceded the feature film. I understand that this is marketed to kids, and therefore they have to select the previews to appeal to that audience, but surely no one in their right minds thought that the VHS generation wouldn't be there too. Forty-five minutes teasing at all the films I definitely won't be seeing. Gru and his Fabio-like brother? No thanks. Smurfs meet the Amazonian Smurfs? Ugh, please. More Transformers, REALLY? Make it stop...make it stop...

FINALLY the movie began.

     The haunting theme plays as the familiar narration begins, and the groundwork is laid for the rest of the story. A few things immediately stick out: the first is that the prince really had it coming; it wasn't just one poor choice, but a lifestyle of selfishness and arrogance. The prince is a clear imitation of Louis XIV, being as pompous and lavish as possible, funded by the taxes of the provincial people. This depiction makes the harsh enchantment much more understandable, because it clearly shows that the prince made many choices that confirmed his selfishness-- the hag and the rose were just a final straw as it were.

     The second thing of note is that a few added lines of narration clear up a few questions left unanswered by the animated telling. Namely, how did no one in the province know that a grand castle was nestled in the forest, and not that far away from the village? Did no one in the castle have any association at all with people outside? How did no one know that it was there, and housing royalty? It turns out the curse erased the castle and all who worked or dwelt there from the memories of their loved ones. That makes perfect sense. Easily fixed. I still have a few questions but never mind those for the moment.

     From here the movie proceeds into the predictable musical sequence "Bonjour!", introducing Belle and the townspeople. For the most part, it's all very lively and colorful, showcasing the quirky townspeople and their simple lives, and certainly depicting the tininess of the settlement -- it's almost claustrophobic really. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everything about everyone, and they don't like change because their way of life is just fine as it is, thank you very much. The tension between Belle and the townspeople is much more prominent here than was shown in the animated version. Whereas the classic cartoon threw out passing lines about Belle not fitting in and not really having friends, this version displays a more mutually negative relationship. The townspeople don't like Belle's progressive thinking, and display paranoid animosity towards her attempts to utilize a homemade washing machine or teach a child to read. However, the townspeople are also shown snatching their laundry out of her way so she doesn't step on it as she obliviously hops through town singing about the "little people." While we can assume there's more history than is shown onscreen, it seems that Belle has given up trying to justify her ways to these simple-minded people.

     Speaking of Belle, a great deal of hype was driven by Emma Watson's participation in this movie, to the point that it seemed that the film's existence was contingent on Watson's involvement. And really she does a decent enough job as Belle, but I'm not convinced that Belle is all that much different from Hermoine, Emma Watson's character in the Harry Potter movies (specifically movies, not the books), which makes it hard to critique her actual performance objectively. In my preview of this year's movies, I referenced Beauty and the Beast as Hermoine! The Musical due to the fact that Emma Watson portrays a book-loving girl who lives in a castle surrounded by magic. I'm not retracting that, and would add to it that like her Harry Potter character, Watson's Belle seems to be better at most things than just about everyone she encounters.

     Watson herself proudly toted Belle as being a more feminist heroine. I suppose that Belle could be seen as an era-appropriate feminist, being a reader, an innovative inventor, and a tad fiery, but ultimately her great adventure is still marrying a prince. For it being a musical, Watson is okay; not great. I can't say this bothered me too much, because even the animated version didn't have soaring musical numbers for Belle to break loose on, so placing priority on the acting isn't the worst idea in the world for this particular role. However, what is either an error of directing or just lack of stage experience, Emma Watson is a little stiff as Belle. In her musical moments, she just seems bored and a bit dull. While the rest of the townsfolk are quirky and varying, Belle moves through them like a stone angel by comparison. It's true that not everyone can swoop around ala Julie Andrews, but a little movement and expression wouldn't hurt. Even in her most opportune moment on the hilltop where she sings of wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere, Watson runs to the top of the hill, and stands there.

     While Belle's songs may not be written to display range and personality, the more iconic piece "Be Our Guest" demands personality, expression, and charisma. While I'll allow for others to disagree with me, I didn't think this number was executed with the enchanting pizazz that the song's reputation carries. Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is a talented singer, but his imitation French accent is so canned and forced that it's hard to connect to the semi-human object as he has his moment of glory. And perhaps the artists of the CGI-characters were limited by adhering to semi-realism, which in turn limited the range of expression and body-language that the objects can demonstrate. Example: In the animated cartoon, Mrs. Potts, although clearly a teapot, has a little bit of squishy bounce to her movements in the manner of a pleasantly plump housekeeper. Here, Mrs. Potts is most certainly a ceramic teapot, depending strictly on her animated expressions for liveliness, which ends up feeling a little lacking for a bombastic musical number. Lumiere has the most free range of movement, but his faux Frenchness detracts from the expected buoyancy of the moment. Ultimately the colorful and abstract "Be Our Guest" sequence left me wondering what kind of mushrooms make up the grey stuff.

     To give proper credit, although some things fall flat, that is not to say that everyone involved is mediocre. One of the most unexpected successes of this film is Luke Evans as Gaston. Luke Evans not only pulls off the part of the self-possessed villain with convincing conceit and well-timed comedy, his musical numbers are executed with perfection. As a character, Gaston is one of the most lively and flamboyant characters in the entire movie, human or otherwise. And interestingly, he probably has the most amount of original lines, whereas most of the rest of the script is lifted directly from the cartoon. Gaston doesn't get deep or sympathetic by any means, but he gets more screen time, which provides some needed breaks from the sometimes plodding castle scenes.

     Evans might be one of the biggest highlights, but he's not the only one. Elsewhere, Dan Stevens' performance under the CGI Beast is fairly impressive; the Beast has much more personality in this adaptation, even a sense of humor, which makes the romance aspect much more credible. Furthermore, his spotlight number "Evermore" is one of the more memorable vocal pieces, though possibly because of its originality. The Beast has much more depth here, showing his journey from child to the conceited prince who brought the curse upon everyone. Kevin Kline as Maurice also works extremely well, being an absent-minded genius, but not entirely bumbling. Audra McDonald as the boisterous boudoir? Perfect. And any excuse to include Stanley Tucci is a good one.

     The box office numbers reflect only soaring success, so I don't expect many to agree with my assessment that this endeavor represented many lost opportunities. Beauty and the Beast does a truly marvelous job of bringing the cartoon to life with real actors, but therein lies part of my issue: unlike Cinderella or The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast borrows so heavily from its animated inspiration that it plays out like an imitation rather than adaptation, predictably checking boxes as it goes, bogging down the pacing of the story at times. The few scenes that are new to this telling are the most interesting, if only because they don't have a decades-old ghost to live up to. Beauty and the Beast is by no means a bad movie, it's actually quite good, but might have been so much better had they really aimed to reinvent, rather than walk a finely scripted line.

Friday, March 3, 2017

2017: A Year for Fans and Flops

     Every year begins with a degree of anticipation as far as entertainment is concerned. 2017 promises a plethora of sequels, reboots, and installments to some of cinema's most recognizable franchises; a year for fans. Comic-Con type fans, lifelong zealot-style fans, nerds, and sentimentalists. Below are a few of this year's most highly-anticipated movies for the aforementioned group.

     Since I'm a few weeks late to this party, I won't bother with what's already come out. But from here forward, get ready for....


Kicking off the month is the highly anticipated Logan; a movie that promises to take what's left of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and leave everything on the field. Knowing that this would be his last time as Wolverine, Jackman voluntarily took a paycut to ensure that Logan could be rated R, and that everything he's always wanted to unleash with the character can finally come to fruition in this superhero swan song. Jackman has been the one constant in a franchise that has reinvented itself around him, and now, he takes his final bow. Expect hearts to be ripped out, both literally and figuratively, as Logan and Xavier come to terms with the most challenging journey of all: age.

Unconnected to any previous occurrences of the character or story, we'll get Kong: Skull Island. This adaptation, being neither sequel nor prequel to anything else Kong, looks like a fabulously bold and possibly outrageous cocktail of King Kong, King Solomon's Mines, and Apocalypse Now, with a touch of Jurassic Park. Judging by the choppers on the promos, I'd say it's a safe bet that beauty won't be killing the beast...

Speaking of Beauty and the Beast, the month of March will also be bringing us Hermoine! The Musical. It's being marketed as a reboot of some Disney animated classic from the 90's, but don't be fooled. Emma Watson stars as a book-loving girl-next-door type surrounded by magic and living in an enchanted castle.

Also rising from the relics of the 90's is Power Rangers; a movie I mention for the sole purpose of validating some of my readers, who have already declared that their undying love for this (sadly) unforgotten series will land them in theater seats on opening day.

If you have a thing for the Fast and Furious franchise, April is for you. But I'm skipping right to May for....

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2! Prediction: Baby Groot will overtake the Minions as a marketing and meme favorite. Other reasons to see this movie: vintage music and another dose of the campy but pristinely executed sci-fi that made the first movie so unconventional and enjoyable. Guardians hits the rare balance of succeeding in its complete avoidance of taking itself at all seriously, yet not making itself a spoof. Marvel has had a decent enough track record with sequels, so it's a more than fair chance that Vol. 2 will be worth seeing.

The survivors of Prometheus return for Alien: Covenant, the second of a new trilogy from the Alien universe. I should probably see Prometheus sometime. I like Alien, and I like a good sci-fi thriller, so logically this would be something I should check out. Ridley Scott knows a thing or two about large-scale stories and beautiful story-telling (Gladiator, The Martian), so even with all the inevitable screeching, screaming, running, and gut-spilling, chances are that it will at least be well-made.

Next up is Disney's confession that they just can't let it go: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. For those who've lost count, this is the fifth installment to the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow. Don't get me wrong: Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the most unique and memorable characters brought to cinema in modern history, but Disney ran the risk of overdoing it back when they made the second Pirates movie in 2006. There's always a chance that they turn things around this time after the fiasco On Stranger Tides (the fourth movie), but so far nothing looks very original. How many undead enemies can one rum-loving captain have anyway? All the same, it was very nice of Disney to bring back the character Will Turner, giving Orlando Bloom a (surely much-needed) job. Johnny Depp too actually...

Next up, the month of June!

One of the season's more highly anticipated movies will be Wonder Woman. DC Comics has a lot riding on this particular movie to reignite the interest in the upcoming Justice League, and they've done their absolute best to make sure that they get props for presenting the first female superhero movie of the modern wave. At first glance, Wonder Woman looks vaguely like Captain America, placing a timeless character in a vintage setting to drive a certain sentimental heroism into the tone. Wonder Woman also looks like it has real creative and artistic potential, but early reviews have already pointed out that it suffers from most of the same issues that harpooned Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Speculating a bit though, it's hard to believe that Wonder Woman has any surprises to offer. We already know that Diana will meet Superman and Batman in Dawn of Justice many decades later, but it's a safe bet that her love interest Steve Trevor won't be so lucky. At the very least, he'll be Wonder Woman's Peggy Carter (Captain America). Suffice to say this doesn't hold much interest for me, but those who are looking forward to it take it very seriously indeed.

Reigniting the monster universe will be Mission Impossible: Ancient Foes, otherwise known as The Mummy. This is definitely not a remake of the Indiana Jones-style Brendan Fraser piece from the late 90's. Instead, we'll get Tom Cruise-- the go-to man for all "Action Hero Wanted" ads, which is just as well since he does a good job. This new re-imagining of the old story looks to be a potentially intriguing blend of The Ring meets the DaVinci Code. Like previous releases of movies involving mummies, it is just as likely to be enjoyable and fun as it is to be really terrible; its current potential to be worthwhile is exactly 50/50.

Transformers: The Last Knight-- PLEASE be truly the last and save me from seeing another grievous trailer. Wahlberg, save yourself!

Despicable Me 3-- move over, Minions; Groot is in town!

Let the fireworks pop and the burning summer heat bear down, July is bringing you...

Not the first, not the second, the THIRD adaptation of the web-slinging adolescent superhero Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming! We had Tobey Maguire for three movies, we had Andrew Garfield for two movies, and now we get an all new young and fresh Tom Holland. This newcomer was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and now he gets his own movie. This adaptation is already looking significantly different than previous presentations of Spider-Man, and tying Tony Stark into it certainly gives it a boost. Most shocking of all though, is Michael Keaton, a man known for Batman and Birdman, taking a really unexpected turn to play a character here called The Vulture. That's range for you right there.

This may be the final installment to Caesar's legend: War for the Planet of the Apes. I don't want to make assumptions or spoil anything with speculation, but I'm just guessing that humans aren't going to win this one; it's called Planet of the Apes after all. The first of this rebooted franchise (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) vaguely referenced a lost Mars probe called the Icarus. This sets up the 1970's Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston and his band of astronauts crash on a strange planet after an interminable amount of time in cyrosleep. Although War for the Planet of the Apes may not play out this way, I envision the following ending to this reboot: the war has ended and apes are the undisputed dominant species. The camera pans to a faraway deserted terrain, where a spacecraft called Icarus has crashed to the ground. Three astronauts climb uncertainly out of the vessel and wonder fearfully to one another what has happened and where they are. They walk away from the spacecraft, oblivious to the silhouette of a toppled Statue of Liberty subtly piercing over the land behind them.

The later summer and most of the fall will offer a break to the franchise pieces and fan-driven reboots, but once we hit November, things will start getting interesting again with....

Thor: Ragnarok. We already know from a post-credits scene that we can expect to see Dr. Strange pop up in this one, making the dreams come true of all the fans who have longed to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston onscreen together. Oh yeah, Thor is in it too. At some point we can surmise that he figured out that his brother Loki tricked him (surprise, surprise), and has been ruling Asgard posing as Odin. Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neal, and Karl Urban also star, which is interesting at the very least. Apparently the Hulk will also make some sort of appearance, so the two Avengers who weren't invited to Civil War are making their own adventures I suppose.

Also in the season of thankfulness will come Justice League; a movie that a handful will be supremely thankful for, leaving the rest of us to be thankful that December is coming. Personally, I thought Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was woeful, so giving Zach Snyder another chance to make a wandering, moody, and brooding attempt at superheroes in the style of film noir is just way off my radar. I will say though, I didn't think there was any possible way to make Aquaman look remotely cool, so I've clearly been wrong before.

Finally, Merry Christmas all ye loyal nerds! Happy Holidays all ye faithful! The time has come to unwrap your gift,

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Who are Rey's parents? Who is/are the last Jedi? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Such are some of the burning questions raised by The Force Awakens, and now comes the highly-anticipated second installment to the great saga-- well, eighth installment if you want to get really technical. The Empire Strikes Back has been widely hailed as one of the greatest sequels in movie history, and since The Force Awakens walked the footsteps of A New Hope very closely, my hopes for The Last Jedi are extremely high. I want to see more of John Boyega's Finn, learn more of Luke Skywalker's life these many years since The Return of the Jedi, watch Rey discover her own past, and see Kylo Ren wrestle with the haunting reality of his choices. We're guaranteed more of the mysterious Snoke and the staunch General Hux, as well as more of the bouncing BB-8. The galaxy far, far away is calling....

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards

     I wasn't nearly as up to date on all the buzz as I have been in years past, but it didn't stop me from wanting to tune in for the passion, fashion, glamour, and occasional yawn of the Academy Awards. At the time of the Oscars, the only major contender I'd seen was Hacksaw Ridge, but with full intention to check out Hidden Figures, La La Land, and maybe Manchester by the Sea. The night rolled along with awards going to the shocked and excited, the humble and nervous. Yes, there is one moment that stands above the rest and will be all anyone is talking about for a while, but let's not forget how many other memorable things happened that night. 

     The night begins with the red carpet coverage, where everyone is sized up on national television for their fashion taste, and let me just say that Michael Strahan and Dwayne Johnson can rock a velvet jacket. Halle Berry arrives with her hair channeling Tina Turner, and Salma Hayek channeling a madame of the old West. Michelle Williams and Charlize Theron compete for most exposed sternum, losing to Janelle Monae, who sports a dress with a sheer top that may or may not have been inspired by Halle Berry when she took home her own gold. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson finally appears onscreen in something her grandmother wouldn't be ashamed of. The closest Jessica Biel ever comes to an Oscar is by accompanying her husband Justin Timberlake and dressing like a gold statuette herself. Timberlake photobombs Emma Stone while she interviews in a stunning 1920's-inspired tiered gown, while Viola Davis can be seen a mile away in an amazing fire-engine red dress, complimented by her swept-off pixie cut. In a rare show of inclusion, the Academy demonstrates its commitment to unity by inviting Mel Gibson-- a man who is loved only slightly more than President Trump.

     And then the fun begins where the Academy picks from the artsy, controversial, political, or mediocre pieces that critics love but audiences don't. Replacing the traditional opening number performed by the host, Justin Timberlake kicks things off by singing and dancing his way in to the auditorium with his Best Original Song nominee "Can't Stop the Feeling". The electrifying performance showcases Timberlake's talent, gets the whole place dancing, and leaves everyone asking "was that song from a movie?" The song is from Trolls, but don't expect anyone to really know that in this crowd.

     Jimmy Kimmel breaks the ice of wondering who will be the first to take shots at President Trump, and lays the groundwork for a night of POTUS roasting with some back-handed compliments to "Hollywood's most overrated actress" Meryl Streep. And of course with Matt Damon seated in the second row, Kimmel reignites their famous feud with an insincere apology to Damon for the years of grief caused by Damon's selfishness and difficult attitude.

     A few surprises ensue from the results, not the least of which is when Zootopia takes home Best Animated Feature over fan favorites Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings. Suicide Squad takes home an Oscar for Makeup over Star Trek Beyond and something called A Man Called Ove. Whether or not Suicide Squad deserved it is less important to me than the fact that the members didn't vote against it just to avoid putting their name anywhere near one of the year's worst-reviewed movies. Pleasantly, Colleen Atwood takes home an Oscar (category Costume Design) for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that no one (including herself) was expecting. The always-delightful Dwayne Johnson introduces Lin Manuel-Miranda, who prologues an excellent musical performance by sixteen year old Auli'i Cravalho for Moana. Although Cravalho's song didn't win, she gets points for holding her own when the rest of the evening's musical performers included John Legend, Sting, Sara Bareilles, and Justin Timberlake. And one of the background performers accidentally hit her in the head with their fan prop, but she kept right on singing like a true professional.
     Mahershala Ali leads the first-time Oscar recipients with his win for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Moonlight. Viola Davis gives a powerful acceptance speech when she receives her long overdue Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, which also makes her a member of the "Triple Crown Club" for now having won an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar. The Academy awards Casey Affleck Best Actor in a Leading Role, upsetting Twitter, which is quick to bring up sexual harassment claims from 2010 and point out that Brie Larsen looks unhappy. Fan favorite Emma Stone wins Best Actress in a Leading Role for Academy favorite La La Land.

     Elsewhere, Kimmel keeps the night interesting when he ushers a group of unsuspecting selfie stick-holding tourists into the auditorium. Most of the actors get into it, enthusiastically giving hugs and handshakes to the baffled crowd, while others seem to regret sitting on the front row. The real stars of this moment however, are the tourists, who hop from one celebrity to the next with disbelief. Despite being on national television, every one of them persist with using their phones to capture this moment through their tiny screens instead of lifting their eyes to the glamour that is right in front of them.

    The evening's awards roll onwards, with occasional snacks being parachuted into the audience. The POTUS barbs predictably continue, but it's the Damon roast that reaches a peak. First, Kimmel gives a mock-inspirational commentary on We Bought a Zoo. A moment later, Matt Damon is introduced as "Guest" when he walks onstage with Ben Affleck. A good-humored Damon surges forward, even as the band plays the cue music to wrap it up, every time he says anything. Before the night is over, Kimmel notes that they're coming up on his favorite part of the evening, where Matt Damon loses an Oscar (having no nominations this year). A sweet song from Sara Bareilles pays tribute to the members of the Academy who died this past year, accidentally including someone who hasn't kicked the bucket yet.

     Then, the moment that would define the 89th Academy Awards: the Best Picture announcement. As veteran actors Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty take the stage and review the nominees for the year, I was feeling torn. Though I had called La La Land, I leaned over to my husband and said "You know, Moonlight could be the dark horse this year", which turned into an interesting prophecy on my part. Having had moderate success at calling the winners to this point, I called the winners for Best Picture in the same order that the Academy did. First, La La Land, which seemed like the obvious and predictable choice. Then there was that awkward confusion you could observe onstage as people in headsets rushed in amongst the group of winners behind the speech-makers. A few shocked faces could be seen behind those at the mic who were still thanking their parakeets. Then you saw it: producer Jordan Horowitz, who had been holding his Oscar statue near his heart, dropped his arm into a limp swing, leaving Oscar dangling at his fingertips. Horowitz and Beatty both made a move towards the mic, with Horowitz being the one to announce that there had been a mistake, and Moonlight was the actual winner.

     Suddenly all the air in the room was sucked out as disbelief swept the audience.

     Horowitz snapped the slip away from Beatty, holding it up as proof that Moonlight was indeed the winner of the night. There could not have been more apologies in the next few minutes as the cast and crew of La La Land made their way off the stage to make way for Moonlight. Horowitz, recovering from his shock, graciously handed his Oscar to Jeremy Kleiner with a big embrace, and then vanished off-stage (no doubt to console the rest of La La Land backstage) to allow Moonlight their moment in the spotlight; a moment overflowing with conflicting emotions as the gracious crew of the true winning movie held statues that only seconds before had been in the hands of another crew celebrating their supposed win.

     The Best Picture moment is being called the biggest mistake in Oscar history. In previous years, the fact that this was a very low-rated ceremony with low viewership would have been a comfort to the Academy after such a snafu, but thanks to social media, no one hasn't heard about this by now. Whispers have even indicated that it may have been a planned mishap to generate more chatter and scandal, but that seems like an overly harsh thing to do to the nominees. The moment came, the moment went, and will surely be talked about for years to come.

     This may have been a low-rated year, but I don't remember the last time I was enjoying the ceremony enough to watch it all the way to the end. Kimmel brought his personality to the evening, with all of his late night TV-type features in tow. From the unsuspecting tourists to the parachuting snacks to the mean tweets, Kimmel owned the moment, embracing his own style along with it. The night may have recognized great actors and other talent, but it was Kimmel who was tasked with being the main entertainer for the evening, and entertain, he did. And looking back, he did this without relying on the cheap vulgarity that has permeated and coarsened entertainment today.
 Good show old boy!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Secret Life of Pets

     The fact that I'm writing this now reveals that this was definitely a Redbox movie, not a big screen endeavor. The Secret Life of Pets is the kind of movie that (at least when you don't have kids, which I don't) you grab for the sheer reason of being entertained without having to be mentally engaged. Kid-aimed movies tend to excel at this, so after a long and brain-taxing week in the nuthouse (otherwise known as an office), The Secret Life of Pets made its way into my hands.

      The Secret Life of Pets takes Toy Story, and replaces the toys with animals. The new dog messes up the perfect relationship that the long-residing pet has with his owner, and an adventure ensues with both of them trying to get back to their loving owner before she gets home from work. That pretty  much sums it up. As such, it's not as original or quite as enjoyable as Toy Story, but it has its moments.

     As anyone would expect, the story plays significantly on the sentimentality of the pet-owner relationship. The writers capitalize on normal pet behaviors, with the pets narrating their own thoughts for the audience in a way that all pet-owners can identify with. Furthermore, the animals all remain true to their real-life natures. The cat cares, but does so in a most indifferent way. The dogs are easily distracted and notoriously single-minded. The owners are oblivious as to what their pets are actually trying to communicate. In this way, the writing has a cleverness about it that is worth a chuckle here and there.

     Outside of these real-life connections, The Secret Life of Pets is exceptionally simple, and a bit of a mishmash of purposeless characters that rely too heavily on their celebrity voices rather than witty dialogue. For example, Snowball the homicidal bunny, is voiced by Kevin Hart. Snowball has some genuinely humorous moments fueled by amusing dialogue, but the humor of the character mostly seems to rest on the fact that Kevin Hart is behind it, not necessarily what he's saying or doing. The same is true of Pops, a decrepit old Beagle voiced by Dana Carvey. The character seems to have been written for no other reason than to include Carvey, which doesn't actually bring that much to the story. But, I shouldn't be too harsh on movies of this kind using characters as plot devices, because the target audience is unlikely to be too picky about it.

     The Secret Life of Pets is cute, and certainly has a few sweet moments that pet owners will find endearing. It stays fairly light (perhaps a little too much at times-- a sequence involving singing sausages comes to mind), making it a decent choice for a quiet Friday night after a draining week in the psych ward.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2016: A Year of Movies in Review

     So in lieu of the fact that I don't always have the time or inspiration to write full reviews, I'm going to take inspiration from Dave Barry and do a year in review, but with movies-- at least the ones I saw this year. Since I can't remember when I saw these films, I'll go by order of theatrical release dates. So without further adieu, I give you:

2016: A Year of Movies in Review

January. A month synonymous with resolutions and new beginnings. Sadly, not for the movie industry, which continues to revel in an excess of sequels, such as...

 Kung Fu Panda 3. The original concept behind Kung Fu Panda was a classic underdog story featuring the chubby and unlikely hero who rises to fulfill his destiny. Kung Fu Panda 3 leaves those inspired beginnings behind to pursue an excuse to incorporate baby pandas, and wedge in undertones about family, fatherhood, and identity. While these features lend some tender moments, it's all lost in between the odd spirituality and overused jokes. A solid one-timer.

Outside of the theater however, Netflix proved itself to be an able producer of decent entertainment, not just a distributor, when it presented...

The Siege of Jadotville. If you've never heard of Jadotville, or that there was a siege there, you're not
alone. This historical drama set in 1961 delivers a gripping tale of a little-known Irish battalion holding out against a siege of 3,000 Congolese troops led by French and Belgian mercenaries. With solid performances throughout, this intense bit of war-like drama delivers a straightforward but compelling tale of courage and resourcefulness against insurmountable odds and despicable politics. By no means the best war-like movie you'll ever see, but worth the watching all the same.

February might have produced some critical darlings and audience favorites, but I didn't bother with most of them. One of the few contributions I did make time for was another Netflix contribution, namely...

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Unlike its predecessor, Sword of Destiny is filmed in English, and while I don't mind subtitles, I'm thankful this wasn't dubbed. Seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn't particularly essential to understanding Sword of Destiny, and I'm still on the fence as to whether or not Sword of Destiny detracts anything from its predecessor. To its credit, it does not answer how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ended, but picks up much later, only lightly referencing the events of the previous movie. Michelle Yeoh returns as the veteran swordswoman, and another character "returns", played by seasoned martial arts star Donnie Yen. All in all Sword of Destiny is entertaining and engaging, but carries a different tone than its predecessor. It's lighter, less haunting, and more hopeful altogether.

When March rolled around, the first of the supposed blockbusters came with it, bringing in...

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It seems that audiences were divided on this one, but I've got one word for it: ugh. We see Bruce's parents murdered for the millionth time onscreen. Sequences of surreality are not differentiated from reality, which brings several of the artsier moments into the realm of absurdity; for example, Bruce ascending on the updraft of swirling bats. Characters such as Lois Lane and Diana Prince are not so much characters as plot devices. Lex Luthor is so maddeningly over the top that even as an unhinged maniac, he more resembles a bad Joker imitation from a YouTube star. The entire movie is weighed down in its own seriousness, trying with every line of self-conscious dialogue to be moody film noir, but is instead flat and lifeless. Every time Clark appears as Superman, he strides in a dramatic broad-shouldered hero walk, with his cape flurrying behind him in slow motion. EVERY time.

At least March gave us some comic levity with....

Zootopia. Animation has never been a stranger to aiming its humor at the parents sitting alongside the oblivious children who are just there to see the "cute bunny", but Zootopia goes a step further, taking inspiration from movies like L.A. Confidential and The Godfather. As such, Zootopia gets dark at times, but bounces back on its plucky animated haunches and delivers a fun sort of light entertainment, provided you can overlook what at times feels like a wandering agenda.

The closer we got to the summer, the closer we got to the movies everyone really wanted to see. Meanwhile, we had April, which brought us...

The Jungle Book. I actually did a full review on this one, which you can read here. But the short of it is, this was a fun movie that was faithful to the classic animated version, while bringing something new to the table. The life-like CGI made the animal characters more connectable than would have been possible with actual animals, but also maintains an element of realism that keeps this adventure moving.

And with the month of May comes the summer season. Summer season means franchise time and big movies! And launching the season is...

Captain America: Civil War. My only excuse for not fully reviewing this one in its own post is that I didn't see it until a little later. Civil War is basically everything that Avengers: Age of Ultron  wanted to be with its inner-team conflicts, government interference, good intentions with poor outcomes, etc. Winter Soldier ranks among the highest of Marvel movies, and Civil War is a worthy follow-up in almost every way. Although it is a part of the Captain America franchise, Civil War is every bit an ensemble movie, adequately exploring the motives and intentions of each character without going into heavy exposition. Civil War does such a good job of exploring each side of the conflict, that it's a little hard as the viewer to take a firm side; it's easy to see why the team is divided over their new paths. The strengths of the movie echo what Winter Soldier did right, which was in focusing more on the plot and character development, and using big action sequences with tasteful restraint.

X-Men: Apocalypse. Well, after X-Men: Days of Future Past, the X-men franchise seems unleashed to do whatever it wants, which has its pros and cons. Apocalypse presents the single most stirring piece of Magneto's past that we've ever seen, and Michael Fassbender proves again that he is capable of bringing an intensity and range to the character that makes Magneto more sympathetic than ever before. Elsewhere, previously introduced characters like Xavier, Hank, and Mystique return (with an obligatory Logan cameo), but mostly just carry star power to usher in the new young ones. Speaking of the young ones, it's somewhat enjoyable to see the early years of Cyclops, Jean, and Storm, but ultimately it all feels like a big CGI-fest of "look what we can do!" Apocalypse as a villain is more preposterous than frightening, serving as another vehicle for CGI showmanship. Not bad, not great.

Continuing the trend of big sequels, June brought the highly anticipated...

Finding Dory. A Finding Nemo sequel has seemed fairly inevitable for over ten years now, so Pixar really ought to be commended for not using the Nemo hype to immediately throw us a half-baked fish story. A full review of Finding Dory is available here, but the jist of it is that Finding Dory isn't a bad sequel, but it does feel a little recycled in many ways. I'm not sure how that could have really been avoided though. As I said in my full review, Finding Dory is a worthy follow-up to Finding Nemo, being effervescent and full of heart, but also putting a few nicks on that heart. Oh Pixar, how you love to play with our hearts.

For me, one of the best movies of the summer came in July, because it brought me...

Star Trek Beyond. Naturally I have a much more in-depth review, but suffice to say that Beyond is "perhaps not the highest point in the trilogy, nor for sci-fi in general, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun" (quoting myself because I can). The revived Star Trek movies abound in witty banter and comical scenarios, allowing the freedom to reinvent the iconic characters while also paying them homage. Even the self-serious Spock is liberated enough to not treat his every word as holy, and ultimately we get a movie that's well-scripted and fun in its sci-fi peril, but thoughtful in its execution and storytelling.

Jason Bourne also featured in July, but I personally think it's time for Mr. Bourne to retire. He's found his identity, proved his supremacy, cast his ultimatum, and now it feels like the brand is on life-support. The intrigue and mystery have worn off, and unfortunately neither the franchise nor Jason himself have the charisma and variety to continue in the manner of, say, Mission Impossible. Another chase through a European city isn't even fan service anymore-- it's just old. Revelations in this most recent installment are predictable, and other plot twists are repetitive. Jason Bourne's end lands us right back where it began-- with Jason hiding in shadows and unable to trust anyone. Time to say goodbye.

August brought me nothing from the theater, Netflix, or Redbox. The month was a dud for entertainment, and September wasn't much better. October produced only...

Inferno. There's some sort of unwritten rule in Hollywood that everything must happen in trios, and so it happens with Inferno. Whether Inferno is prequel or sequel to The DaVinci Code I don't know, but it is, like the underrated Angels & Demons, a continuation of the strange adventures of Dr. Robert Langdon. Tom Hanks has never been an action hero, which is just as well because Robert Langdon was never meant to be Indiana Jones, despite his entanglement with religious relics and conspiracies. Inferno self-consciously ticks boxes as it goes, repetitively incorporating features of the previous two movies, while still trying to be progressive in its plot. Ultimately it ends up a decent enough bit of intrigue, but once you understand the stakes, there's very little question as to whether or not Langdon will succeed so much as a question of how.

Going into the Fall movie season, November was the bearer of my personal favorites of the year, starting with...

Hacksaw Ridge. I had planned to write a full review of this charming and inspiring war movie, but had a difficult time getting the ball rolling on it. War movies are probably the hardest to critique because there is a vast well of emotion that surrounds each story, whether portrayed in some unique way or with gritty passion. In many ways, Hacksaw Ridge echoes one of director Mel Gibson's earlier masterpieces, Braveheart. While the story centers securely on war and the brutality of it, the individual is firmly established through both sweet and harrowing moments. Desmond T. Doss, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge, is in every way the unlikeliest of heroes except in his determined resolve to serve as far as his convictions will allow. But as a conscientious objector, his convictions prohibit him from killing another person. Predictably, his firmness on this issue will garner persecution from fellow soldiers and superior officers, but he finds a way in the heat of battle to serve his country and his fellow men while never swaying on this resolve. Andrew Garfield as Doss shines as a lovable country boy turned war-hero, while Hugo Weaving's portrayal of Doss's father will be one of the most underrated supporting roles of the year. While Doss isn't the strapping image of a heroic war figure, he's an inspiring figure all the same, and it's both heart-pounding and gut-wrenching to see him pulling barely-alive men to the edge of the cliff, only to breathe "Lord, give me one more" when each man safely reaches the bottom.

Doctor Strange. When promos for Doctor Strange began hitting, I was moderately interested. I didn't know much about the story or the character's impact on the Marvel universe, but I like Marvel, and I like Benedict Cumberbatch, so it seemed like it would be a safe bet that I'd enjoy this movie. Enjoy might be a mild understatement, and I now struggle with where to place Doctor Strange in Marvel's top five best movies. With snappy dialogue, kaleidoscopic visuals, and solid casting, Doctor Strange is a glorious origin story that sets a high bar for its own future in all the best ways.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. At one point in the history of blogging, I wondered if I should rename my blog and do only pieces on Harry Potter. With that kind of history of fandom, it's probably not surprising that Fantastic Beasts should be my most anticipated movie of the year. It's a return to the world of Harry Potter, long before Harry Potter, in a different era and different country. The results were absolutely mesmerizing, bringing the audience back to the magical world we've missed so much, but also showing us a whole new one with an entirely new kind of hero. Who is Newt? No one quite as important as the Boy Who Lived or He Who Must Not Be Named, but a delightful everyman tangled up in grand adventures.

The year wrapped up in December with one of the biggest brand names in cinema,

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As a fairly big fan of Star Wars, I went into Rogue One with high expectations. Rogue One was far from terrible, but missed several opportunities for character development or emotional engagement. The lack of character development turned Rogue One into a forced plot vehicle that felt more like a checklist than a flowing storyline, with all its features serving the already-known endgame.

Until I began working on this particular post, it hadn't necessarily occurred to me whether or not 2016 was a good year in movies, but looking at this list, I'd say it had some more than decent contributions, with November being my favorite month. My 2016 list is made up of mostly sequels and franchise pieces, and 2017 will probably be similar, with a few outliers. While I'm highly anticipating the continuation of various installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as Star Wars Episode VIII, I also harbor hopes that some franchises will finally end in 2017. If the year brings forth nothing else that is good and enjoyable, I will at least be spared from having to sit through another Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean trailer, should these movies fail in the way that I maliciously hope for. But, I've got an entire year before I can look back on the whole and see how we did in 2017. In the meantime, I bid adieu to 2016, with special gratitude for the high points in entertainment this year.