Category Archives: (4.5 out of 5)

Avengers: Infinity War – Movie Review

Now that I’ve finally seen it, I am happy to say that Avengers: Infinity War pays off as the climax to a decade of movies that have built up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s been jokes made (by the actors themselves) about how bringing together so many stars and characters should render them each with trivial parts, but on the contrary, the movie actually gives most characters significant screen time and meaningful scenes (though some, like Black Widow and Winter Soldier, only show up for the action scenes). As well, there’s lots of good dialogue (especially lots of great one-liners — not just from Rocket Raccoon or Drax, either). So, to close off 10 years of stories, Marvel brings together the Avengers with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and recent additions like Dr. Strange, Spider-man, and Black Panther, all to stop the mad Titan Thanos (who has already appeared in several post-credit scenes) from bringing together six all-powerful cosmic artifacts known as the “Infinity Stones” and becoming a death-dealing god. It’s a relatively straightforward plot line, so there’s room for a lot of fun and action.

One of the best parts of a super-hero cross-over story is when characters who don’t normally interact, end up forming some interesting temporary teams. This device always brings out some fun, new dynamics. It was delightful to see Starlord Peter Quill get all insecure when everyone else in the crew could barely contain their admiration for Thor. As you might expect, sparks fly when two egotistical alpha males like Tony Stark and Stephen Strange begrudgingly team up. There’s even a kind of warrior sisterhood forged between Wakanda’s Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch when they face armies of baddies together. Only after investing in all the precursor movies could these new combinations have even been possible — score one for Marvel Studios.

The other major aspect to super-hero cross-overs (or even any super-team stories) in the comic books is the coordinated attack. I don’t know if it’s because of the constraints of the visual effects budgets, the lack of variety of super-powers, or simply deficiency of imagination, but so far the top super-team battles (Captain America: Civil War was probably the best so far) have been only mediocre from this perspective. They mostly find new ways to punch and kick each other, in teams. This time, when they face a big bad behemoth like Thanos (the guy’s like 10 feet tall!) or even his pretty bad minions (who aren’t really named in the movie but are known as The Black Order), the supers have to cooperate and use their powers in new and interesting ways. (As a Dr. Strange fan, I was gleeful to see a classic spell known as the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak used to bind Thanos while Spidey blocked his eyes with webbing and allowed the others to gang up on him.)

MCU has already made a reputation for doing some pretty good action sequences and this movie has these scenes in spades. From New York City, to Edinburgh, to Wakanda, to alien planets, battle after battle was awesome to watch. I know a lot of it was CGI, but it didn’t really feel like it. Even Thanos, who was all CGI over motion-capture, was really lifelike — especially his face and his expressions, which were actually more soulful than what I’ve seen from the real face of actor Josh Brolin, who plays him.

I don’t want to spoil, so I’ve been careful to avoid any real plot points here, but there’s a lot of big things happening in this movie. I even impressed myself by staying in my seat for the entire 160 minute run — there’s not a good time to leave. I think this is a landmark movie simply because Marvel Studios was able to bring together ten years of almost 20 movies into a thrilling quasi-finale, and that’s never been done before. For fans like me, it’s a huge reward for all the time and emotion spent with these characters on screen (and I even just rewatched the whole series prior to seeing this movie). To top it all off, they were able to conclude the story but not close off the future — in fact there’s many aspects for which I am dying to see what’s next. (4.5 out of 5)

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Black Panther – Movie Review

I was never a fan of the Black Panther comics. His generic animal-based super-strength and agility didn’t really impress, and his background as a king of a technologically-advanced African nation was interesting, but less so in a comic book universe where technology can do anything a writer and artist wants to imagine. On screen, however, I am now a pretty big fan of Black Panther because his story has become noble, thrilling, and really enjoyable. I think Marvel Studios is getting better at its adaptations (ignoring the recent Inhumans tv series, which was awful), knowing just how to make each character’s story special.

Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, the son of an African king who was killed in Captain America: Civil War. When his father died, T’Challa inherited the mantle of the Black Panther, the mystical superhuman protector of the nation of Wakanda. In addition to the burden of rulership, he also has to bear the responsibility of protecting Wakanda’s secret: the nation was built on a mountain of space metal known as vibranium, which has given Wakandans power, healing, and technological advancement, and therefore a reason to keep their true status from the rest of the world.

Black Panther doesn’t really tell an origin story, but still does a great job introducing viewers to its characters, including T’Challa’s scientific genius sister, Shuri; his ex-girlfriend and spy, Nakia (played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o); his general, Okoye; and enemies Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) who has a sonic weapon for a hand, and Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan). When vibranium is stolen from a British museum, the movie takes a turn into spy-fi territory as T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye go in pursuit of the villainous Klaue (who also has a history with the Wakanda). These Bond-inspired scenes are full of fun action, especially when a three-car chase breaks out in the streets of Busan, South Korea. The Wakandan technology (which includes gadgets with the ability to remotely take control of a car) really adds a “Mission Impossible” element to the mix as well. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects to this movie is the blending of futuristic technology with a traditionally African aesthetic. I loved the interiors of Shuri’s lab, which held all kinds of sci-fi equipment but with styling and details that carried tribal overtones. Similarly, there were many scenes involving rituals and ceremonies which also had a similarly mystical, timeless, and traditional feel. Much has already been written about how this movie is a landmark for black representation in popular culture, but without overanalyzing or getting into a political discussion, I agree that this movie has done a great job glorifying the African cultural legacy.

Another aspect to this movie that made it enjoyable is that there were a few twists on who was the enemy or “bad guy” (though not in an ambiguous anti-heroic way), and it all came back to the past and tied to Wakanda. There were themes of nationhood, patriotism, as well as power and duty. Every character (not just T’Challa) had to make a choice between serving their own needs or the good of their nation. As enjoyable as it was to watch Boseman as T’Challa, the other characters really stole the show. Shuri was the fun-loving younger sister, so she always had the humourous lines. Nakia was the skilled fighter/agent, so she always came through to save the people who needed saving. However, the one who stole the show was Okoye, the vibranium-tough, fierce warrior with a clear sense of honour, and an unbreakable sense of duty (actress Danai Gurira plays Okoye with a wonderful intensity and physicality — she speaks volumes with the thump of her spear).

The look of the film is also top-notch (Did we expect anything less polished from Marvel Studios and Industrial Light & Magic?). I’ve already touched on the wonderful production design, but the African landscapes look magnificent. The action scenes are robust and exciting, and all the effects look slick and flawless.

After feeling a sense of fatigue at the superhero movies that were being made prior to last year, Black Panther is a great continuation of the trend towards sharp, fun, thoughtful and enjoyable superhero movies that have turned my sentiments around. Landmark or not, this superhero movie really made me look forward to all the ones that are yet to come (and from all the trailers I saw before the movie, I’m sure that’s exactly what the studios are hoping). Bring on the Infinity War! (4.5 out of 5)

Coco – Movie Review

I know that there have been a lot of animated films lately, and anyone with kids has already gone to see Coco and moved on, but I just saw it and still want to say how great I thought the movie was. Pixar’s track record has slipped a bit from the flawless hit-factory that it had been (no thanks to The Good Dinosaur or mediocre Cars sequels), but Coco reminds me that they are still top-notch when it comes to animated storytelling. This story of a young Mexican boy whose soul longs to be a musician, despite his family’s legacy of shunning music as a curse (ever since great-grandma Coco’s father left his family to pursue a musical career) is a fun, touching, adventurous spectacle.

Even before the first scene, I was reminded of Pixar’s technical mastery (there was a pre-movie clip with some of the creators which showed-off some of film’s wonderful visuals), but it was in the opening few sequences that their progress really became obvious. It wasn’t in the big, jaw-dropping scenes full of millions of lights and moving bits (though those are always awesome) but in the regular motion of the characters, such as main boy Miguel and his dog Dante. Human animation has always been a struggle between making the characters look and move too artificially puppet-like or too creepily realistic. In this movie, the characters all still look cartoonish (with their disproportionately large heads and hands, etc.) but their movements are amazingly life-like and the entire world they are in feels real. I was especially fascinated by a motion that occurred often in this movie: the strumming of a guitar. It is probably something that is so easily filmed using a camera in the real world, but to simulate those strumming motions and the vibration of strings in time to the music must have taken ages to get right. I know I’m geeking out a bit, but I can’t say enough about how transporting and engaging the animation really made this movie for me.

Beyond the impressive visuals, this movie also harkened back to some of the more heart-touching works in the Pixar canon, like Up or Toy Story. (Be warned that there’s a surprisingly simple yet moving scene at the end of the movie. It’s right where you expect it to be, but it’ll still getcha! Tissue, please.) Miguel (played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) is an exuberant, happy kid, who balances a love and respect for his family with a secret love of music, especially the music of his idol: Ernesto de la Cruz (played by Benjamin Bratt). When some magical coincidences end up sending him to the land of the dead on the Mexican Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), he meets up with the spirits of his past relatives and the conflict between love of family and music sets up a difficult choice for Miguel again.

As usual, in these kinds of movies, a bunch of ground rules are set for the Land of the Dead, establishing that Miguel needs to be blessed by his family before sunrise in order to return to the living (subject to terms and conditions). Along the way to solving those challenges, Miguel runs into a vagabond spirit, Hector (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who is trying to get back to the living world before he is forgotten, and fades away, forever. The ground rules are a great way to lay out the dramatic stakes (especially for kids), and it’s so much easier to understand what things mean in the language of the movie. That being said, there are a few delightful plot twists in this movie (not entirely unpredictable, but enjoyable nonetheless) which also keep things interesting. The best part of this story is that these concepts are all cast within the context of the Mexican culture and its folklore and traditions. From ofrendas (i.e. altars) where families display photos and other items to honour the dead; to alebrijes (i.e. spirit animals) which are colourful fantasy creatures carved out of wood or paper mache for the celebration of Dia de Muertos, it really brings this celebration of Mexican culture to vivid life, and ties it all back to music (which is apparently a big part of Mexican culture as well, at least according to this movie).

All in all, it’s great to see another new creation from Pixar (especially one that does not involve humanizing generally cold things like toys or bugs or fish). I look forward to them continuing on this path (even though I’m also looking forward to more sequels such as Incredibles II coming), because while they are definitely leading the way in terms of animation technology, they have also led the way in terms of creative family-friendly visual storytelling; and we need as much of both as we can get. (4.5 out of 5)

2017 Summer of Sitcom Binge-watching

From my lack of reviews over the summer, it may be obvious that I, like critics and audiences everywhere, think this was the worst summer movie season ever. I only got out to a couple of movies in the theatre, so what have I been doing to satisfy my pop-cultural cravings over the summer? I’ve been couch-potatoing: binge-watching a number of sitcoms (many on Netflix). Some of them I never thought I’d like, or gave up the first time around. Giving them a second chance, they aren’t half bad. So now I’m going to provide a quick recap of ten (count’em, 10) of these shows, so you can decide whether or not to give these shows a viewing.

1. Grace and Frankie

This is probably the biggest surprise on the list. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women in their 70s who become unlikely best friends after their husbands come-out and become lovers. I could not relate too much with the situation behind this comedy, but an excellent cast, some pretty good writing, and a funny-yet-heartfelt tone really won me over. Fonda plays Grace, a serious, sophisticated business woman who ran a cosmetics company and needs her life to be perfect. On the other side, Tomlin plays Frankie, an unpredictable free spirit and hippie who teaches art classes to convicts and named her sons Coyote and Nwabudike. At first, they were mortal enemies, forced to live together in a shared beach house after their husbands moved in together, but they eventually learned to tolerate and even depend on each other. To me, the show’s focus on their offbeat-yet-solid friendship is what got me hooked in spite of all the stuff about seniors and their sex-lives (which definitely did not). (4 out of 5)

2. The Ranch

Just like Grace and Frankie, I’d seen promotions for The Ranch all around Netflix, as one of its originals, but I had no intention of giving it a shot. Ashton Kutcher does not really headline my kind of entertainment. I thought he was pretty funny on That 70s Show as Kelso, but his stupid goofballs are not the kind of characters that I like. When he was joined by fellow 70s alum Danny Masterson on The Ranch in a show about rancher brothers who struggle with their family, and with relationships (often due to their inability to express their feelings). These elements were all warning flags for me to stay away. However, once I tried on Kutcher, as a pro footballer who returns to his family’s cattle ranch after his career ends, I actually found myself interested in what happened to him and his family. Masterson plays his brother and in true Prodigal Son fashion, Kutcher’s character’s return stirs up a tornado of resentment from Masterson’s character who stayed behind. Topping off the triangle of stolid masculinity is their father, played really well by Sam Shepherd, who can definitely work a stone-faced glare. Again, the actors do a pretty good job (Kutcher inhabits his character well), and the show is surprisingly heartfelt about finding humour despite the financial hardships that the family faces. One weak point is Debra Winger as the mom: she’s kind of stiff and as a character, she doesn’t fit too well into the ensemble. (3.5 out of 5)

3. Life In Pieces

When it first premiered (it’s not a Netflix original), I dismissed Life In Pieces as a Modern Family knock-off. It kind of is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and diverting. Also about a family of adults (including grandparents, as well as grandchildren) who spend an unusually large amount of time together, there’s a very similar feel to this show. On Life In Pieces, there are three segments per episode (hence the title) and each segment brings together different members of this extended family in different situations. It’s taking the concept of “situation comedy” and putting an organized framework around it. The characters vary in likeability and quirkiness. I can’t say there are any that I am a total fan of (though maybe Colin Hanks as a hapless new dad comes close), which means I don’t have a character who anchors me to the show. It’s very take-or-leave for me, even after having watched the entire first season plus a bit of the second. (3 out of 5)

4. No Tomorrow

Another show that I gave up on originally, this one features Joshua Sasse as Xavier, an eccentric, free-spirited guy who is convinced that the world will end in eight months so he wants to live what remains of his life to the full. He meets up with Evie, who falls for Xavier’s good looks as well as his cavalier spirit. He ignites the risk-taker in her own relatively buttoned-up life (as a middle-manager for a Costco-style chain store). The situations for comedy are triggered by the two working through their doomsday bucket lists, as well as from the odd ensemble of friends and co-workers in Evie’s life. This show was alright, and it actually had a bit of an interesting background story arc around Xavier trying to get the message out about the imminent disaster. However, I did not really fall for the side characters, who are just oddly-mediocre. As for the main couple, I believe their story would have played out completely differently if they weren’t both so attractive, which just makes this show even more ridiculous. I enjoyed the episodes well enough, but if the show had not been cancelled already after its first season, I probably would have stopped watching. (3 out of 5)

5. About A Boy

Do you know of the Nick Hornby book of the same name, which spawned the original Hugh Grant movie; or that the movie also got turned into a TV series? Well, it lasted two seasons from 2014 to 2015, and presented the story of Will Freeman, a songwriter and bachelor, living off royalties from a megahit single and a roguish charm with women. However, when a quirky, hippie mother (played by Minnie Driver) and her young son move in next door, their lives start to intrude on each other and eventually bond and blend. I did watch the first episode of this show back when it aired, but immature man-child characters are one type that I really don’t like, so I stopped watching. However, as I stuck with the show this time around, I got to see a really crazy-yet-healthy relationship grow between Will and the neighbour kid (Marcus). As a bro/surrogate dad to Marcus, Will’s character really developed over two seasons. I enjoyed how they brought out the best in each other. It eventually became a plot point how close the two guys became, but I’m glad that the show leaned into that kind of unique relationship. It’s a bit too bad that the show ended, because I think I might have continued to watch it. (3.5 out of 5)

6. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I didn’t discover this series this summer. In fact, I had really enjoyed previous seasons when they first appeared on Netflix. Unfortunately, my interest and enjoyment of the series has decreased each season. The show about a young woman who had been rescued from a doomsday cult, trying to find a life for herself in New York, was an extreme and humourous fish-out-of-water story in season one, and I kind of enjoyed the over-the-top supporting characters, including her flamboyantly gay roommate, oddly crotchety landlady, and strangely clueless, rich boss. After two seasons, I now find Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) unbearably naive — though it was funny before. I’m finding it hard to stomach roommate Titus’s ridiculous melodrama, and the rest of the stories and characters are just getting broader and broader. As the situations get more soap-opera melodramatic (Can you believe there’s actually a “remove the bandages” reveal for one character, who ends up looking like a totally different person?) I don’t know what to laugh at anymore. (3 out of 5)

7. Master of None

As another acclaimed Netflix original sitcom, Azziz Ansari’s labour of love, has gone the opposite direction in my estimation from Kimmy Schmidt. I watched the first half of Master of None season one and gave up, feeling very little connection to Ansari’s character Dev (a struggling actor trying to find love and success in New York), and I didn’t like his friends much. (I did, however, love the acclaimed episode connecting a couple of the character to the stories of their immigrant parents.) Fortunately, good buzz caused me to retry the show, and I was really glad that I did. When Dev went to Italy to study pasta-making in season two, it transformed the show. The writing seemed to get a bump up in sophistication, while still remaining focused on Dev’s successes and failures in life. I enjoyed the characters much more in the second season, and the stories were richer and more satisfying (a high point was the Thanksgiving episode that not only traced Dev’s relationship with one of his best friends, Denise, since their childhood, it also showed Denise’s family come to terms with her being a lesbian). On top of all that, Alessandra Mastronardi is beautifully-flawed perfection as Dev’s friend/girlfriend Francesca; and the season ends with a subtle, nuanced, will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the next season! (4.5 out of 5)

8. Friends From College

First off, this show looks like a comedy from the advertising, but it is not one. It’s a drama (with some humourous elements) about a group of friends and acquaintances from college whose group is potentially reforming when one couple moves back to New York. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play the pair in question, whose marriage is a bit shaky (wife does not know that husband has been having a long-distance affair with another one of their friends from college all these years, but now that they’re going to be co-located, it might just come up). I think the title of the series is meant to be ironic, or at least point a finger at the idea (which gets a lot of play on TV) that a group of friends from college will be friends forever. These characters act friendly and tease out the relationships that reach back into the past, but they are not very good to each other. The show reaches an extreme climax in the season finale as revelations lead to confrontations and a nice car is ruined. I didn’t find this show fun to watch, but I did want to see how these relationships all played out. Still haven’t decided on season 2 (3.5 out of 5)

9. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

Coming from Seeso, a streaming channel that you’ve probably never heard of, this show lampoons the many real-estate based reality-TV shows. It focuses on a single top-end real estate firm in California, whose agents are all clawing their way to the top. While the characters are all pretty broad, they play pretty well (especially when paired with one of many comedic guest stars as clients, including Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt, Randall Park, Andy Richter, Casey Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic, Rhys Darby, Bret McKenzie, and Sarah Silverman). The scene that convinced me to give the whole series a shot was one where Dan Ahdoot (who plays Amir Yaghoob, a very driven agent) tried to wrangle The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as a spoiled rich kid who has gotten high with his friends in a home that Amir is trying to sell. The writing and tone is uneven, but if you enjoy poking fun at the excess that this kind of tv normally promotes, then this is a fun cartoon of a show. (3.5 out of 5)

10. Rick and Morty

Last, but definitely not least, is an animated comedy that I should have discovered a long time ago. It is tailor-made for sci-fi geeks such as myself and, for my money, contains the highest concentration of sci-fi ideas of any series currently active. Think of it as a cross between Futurama and Doctor Who. The title characters are Rick Sanchez (a hard-drinking, hard-partying, vulgar super-genius who can invent virtually anything) and his grandson Morty Smith (a semi-naive 14 year old brought along as a companion for his grandpa’s crazy inter-dimensional adventures). Though it’s an animated show, it is not really for kids. There is a lot of profanity and some pretty perverse and deviant ideas are tossed around left and right (I confess, I would have enjoyed less of that element). Armed with a portal gun that takes them to other places in the universe as well as alternate versions of reality, this show has everything from robots, space creatures, shrinking down to microscopic, splintering of space-time, intergalactic talent competition, insectoid alien assassins, a planet of amazon women, and the list goes on ad infinitum. This show has so many details that fanboys (and fangirls) pore endlessly over them to form fan theories, etc. On top of all the science fictional goodness, there is also an intense family backdrop. The rest of the family consists of Rick’s daughter, who is Morty’s mother, Morty’s older sister Summer, and their father Jerry. The family is far from perfect and they struggle with lack of communication, lack of mutual respect, lack of affection, lack of acceptance, which may be typical in some family dramas that are trying to depict the challenges of actual family life, but on this show, it’s all part of a dark sense of humour that underlies the stories. I love that this show does not shy away from the tough stuff, and also that it does not hold back on the sci-fi. I’m currently rewatching the series (even as the third season has already begun) to try to catch as many of the details as I can. (4.5 out of 5)

Spider-man: Homecoming – Movie Review

After so many incarnations, it’s hard to believe that another reboot of the Spider-man story could be fun and fresh, but I really enjoyed Homecoming, and a lot of the credit goes to this younger version of the web-slinging hero, and the exuberant performance by rising star Tom Holland. While I had already raved about the previous Spider-man, played by Andrew Garfield, having a more character-driven story — dealing with his relationship with girlfriend Gwen (played by Emma Stone), this time around the character is portrayed even younger (he’s only 15) and there is a lot of teenage energy and fun to it. It’s great to see Spider-man’s alter-ego Peter Parker going through challenges of high school (though he’s super-smart, so the academics are no struggle) and teen melodrama (at one point, his hi-tech talking suit tries to give him advice on girls). This movie has a non-stop sense of humour throughout the movie that is driven mostly by Holland’s aw-shucks kind of innocence (along with his hilarious nerd side-kick Ned). (They are such classic movie teens that I almost felt like I was watching an 80s movie!).

However, one of the things that reminded me that we are very much in the twenty-teens, was how Robert Downey Jr. made a few guest appearances as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Avengers. If you didn’t realize, the “homecoming” is bringing Spider-man back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after many years of being isolated from the other characters by virtue of intellectual property rights. Downey’s presence reminded that even though this is a Spider-man movie, it’s part of that other pop-culture juggernaut. Interestingly enough, while the character needs a place among all the various cinematic super-heroes, Peter Parker is also trying to find his place as a hero. Having come off the thrill of teaming up with the Avengers in the events of the Captain America: Civil War movie, now he wants to prove himself worthy to be a grown-up super-hero: one of the big boys.

One of the best decisions made for this movie was that they didn’t go back and replay Spider-man’s origin story again (there’s a bit of mention that he was bit by a spider, but that’s it). This allowed a bit more time to spend with Peter Parker’s life — we even get to know his friends and classmates (he’s part of the academic decathlon team, which actually plays a meaningful role in this movie) and there was time to develop the villain’s story as well. This made the pieces fit together really well, and I felt like we got a good understanding of the characters — which is something lacking from the movies where producers want to cram a lot of characters onto the screen and give us a lot of explosions and crashes. This movie was even able to make an interesting bad guy out of the Vulture, a staple of Spider-man’s rogues gallery, but not generally very cool. With Michael Keaton in the role, he’s got a few really good speeches and does some moustache twirling, gradually becoming a true nemesis to the young Spider-man.

So is it all just characters talking, or high-school drama? Of course not. There is plenty of action (at some of America’s very well-known tourist attractions, no less) and as I mentioned, the humour is non-stop. I think this is the funniest super-hero movie ever — even more than Deadpool (which had a much darker undertone). There’s a moment of decision at the end of the movie that sets the direction for any sequels. Though it goes exactly as I expected, it also made me wonder what could possibly be in store for subsequent films. I guess I’ve been so programmed by the other blockbuster super-hero movie events that I almost can’t imagine what a down-to-earth, friendly, neighbourhood hero movie might be like — so I’m really looking forward to finding out. Much to my surprise, this third version of cinematic Spider-man seems to be the perfect one (as long as they keep Tom Holland) to take the character forward. 4.5 out of 5

Oscar Schmoscar 2017

Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.

arrivalArrival

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay

A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).

lalaland-featureLa La Land

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay

On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)

andrew-garfield-hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing

This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

florence_bFlorence Foster Jenkins

Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design

I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.

amancalledove_trailer1A Man Called Ove

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair

Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)

zootopiaZootopia

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans  — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Movie Review

rogue6-xxlarge_transcwvra147zcynwgnsprk1xwk-qyyao4e-i8v8-xkbjn4Despite being a big fan of the Star Wars universe, I wasn’t really dying to see Rogue One as much as I should have been. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I watched this really fun movie this week. As others have said, it’s the prequel movie that we’ve been waiting for. For starters, this story is related much more directly to the events of the original Star Wars movie (aka Episode 4: A New Hope). We find out what went into getting those Death Star plans to the rebels that we see in that first movie. (Even more satisfyingly, we finally understand why it was so easy to blow up the Death Star with a single shot!) Even though we are mostly introduced to new characters that we have not seen in previous movies or stories, the context is very familiar. There are glossy-white storm troopers all around; you always need to get past an alien guy to see the human that you want to talk to; and everyone dresses in distressed leather with desert scarves like they just came off a dusty jeep ride. Even our heroes and their rag-tag band are echoes to previous movies: spunky female Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is clearly cut from the Leia/Amidala/Rey cloth; rebel captain Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) has a definite Han/Poe vibe; and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) fills our snarky C3-PO role with a better sense of humour (sorry, no cute wordless droid this time). Even though there are a lot of classic tropes in this movie, compared to The Force Awakens, Rogue One feels a lot more fresh and not like we’re watching another rehash of the seminal Star Wars story.

I really like the idea that not only does this movie fill in some back-story about how the rebels were able to get the plans to the Death Star, but also that it expands the world of the first movie in a very reasonable way. Despite the intimately connected cast of characters, as the title supposedly indicates, Star Wars is telling a war story. So, like in any war, there are many struggles and conflicts, with so much at stake, and so many lives affected, that there should be no end of perspectives to be shared and stories to be told. It’s great that they finally decided to tell one of the other ones. Jyn is the daughter of Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikkelson), a scientist/engineer who is forced at gunpoint to abandon his family to serve the evil empire and build the Death Star. On the eve of the empire’s launching of the Death Star super-weapon, Jyn is brought back into the picture when a runaway imperial pilot brings a secret message from Galen to Saw Gerrera (played maniacally by Forest Whitaker), a rebel extremist leader, which was meant for her. To prove her father is not evil, Jyn needs to rally some rebel aid (and along the way, gathers some rag-tag allies) to secure plans for the Death Star in order to help them destroy the weapon.

Considering so many things in this movie have been done before, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes it so enjoyable. Obviously, the visuals are top-notch; from the opening scenes in the breath-taking mountainous landscapes where Jyn was born, to the eventual beaches on the planet Scarif where they fight the empire. Also, the many aliens and space-battles are always a CGI thrill. While on the topic of CGI, recreating the period of the first movie obviously provided a few challenges to the Rogue One team. It’s great that they kept a lot of the aesthetics of the Death Star interiors (with the displays and dials that seemed modern back in the 70s, but still look alright even today) from the first movie. However, what was more of an elaborate, nostalgic effort was the digital recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (the imperial governor who commanded the Death Star). The actor, Peter Cushing, who played the character in the first movie passed away over 20 years ago. Lucasfilm used some of their latest effects from Industrial Light and Magic to recreate him and it’s actually pretty amazing. I mean, we still haven’t gotten to the point where we can’t tell the difference between actual actor and digital stand-in, but it’s pretty close. It was a little distracting because you can’t help looking closely for signs of artificiality (I’m still not quite sure what’s actually missing, but there’s definitely something), but they made a really good effort. Some viewers have complained a bit about how (like in every prequel) this movie suffers from the need to throw in cameos from the classic cast — while some make meaningful appearances, others do not.

Nevertheless, with all the attention to detail, I think in the end I was most drawn to the new characters. I really liked Jyn and Cassian. I believed in their cause and with their crew they became the underdogs that really had very little chance against an overwhelming force — but they had (as the movie keeps reminding us) hope. Also, the side-characters were wonderful as well — including Asian characters in the Star Wars universe (though one of them is still kind of relegated to doing martial arts) — way to represent, guys! If you felt kind of meh about The Force Awakens, give Rogue One a try. It might revive some of the excitement you have felt in the past for the Star Wars franchise. Plus it’s an exciting sci-fi adventure in its own right. (4.5 out of 5).