Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Hamilton: The Musical – Review

It’s the Fourth of July; the celebration of America’s founding that continues to be a unifying moment in time for Americans from all walks of life.  Traditionally we celebrate with parades, fireworks and outdoor activities and barbecues.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has put a halt to most of our traditional celebratory events, as social distancing remains crucial to stopping the spread of the disease.  Couple this with a political climate that is at it’s most divisive that we’ve seen in quite a while, and many people are questioning if such a celebration is worth it in this time in our history.  Though it won’t stop people from spending modest 4th of July caterings with their small collective family and friends, cooking on a barbecue and launching a few fireworks, some of the bigger expressions of American patriotism are going to be noticeably muted this year.  That’s not to say there isn’t a lot still out there to help boost the patriotic spirit of the national holiday.  There are literally dozens of films and television specials devoted to celebrating the Spirit of America, and they all come in a canvas of different shades that reflects the diverse character that is America today.  Whether it’s with watching a gritty war film like Patton (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), or an inspiring underdog story like Rocky (1976), or a passionate cry for justice like Selma (2014), you can find so many movies out there that shows us the soul of America, and it’s unique place in the world.  Even musical theater can grant us that special feeling of patriotic pride with the stories that it tells in song about the progress of America.  Much of the great American songbook takes it’s selections from the Broadway stage, including from shows that make it a point to tell the story of America itself.  The show 1776 did exactly that in another divisive period of time like right now, with Vietnam and Watergate dominating discourse, and told a compelling story of America’s independence.  In this time of division, we need another musical to again lift up our patriotic spirit, and thankfully, that has finally come straight into our living rooms.

Hamilton: The Musical premiered on the Broadway stage in 2015 to overwhelming acclaim and record-breaking box office.  The brainchild of musical virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  Miranda was inspired to write and produce the musical after reading a biography on the historical figure by historian and author Ron Chernow.  Within it, Miranda saw a story of an underdog immigrant who would go on to be one of the men who shaped America into what it is, a theme that resonated with the son of Puerto Rican-Americans who lived through their own immigrant experience.  What it compelling about Lin-Manuel’s adaptation is that he set out to tell the story of America’s founding with a cast and style of music that is reflective of America today.  Every role, with the exception of King George, is played by a person of color, which offers up a fascinating new perspective on figures enshrined in our history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and of course Hamilton himself.  Miranda would fill the title role himself, and the score was filled with the same Hip Hop and R&B melodies that he used to great effect in his Tony-Award winning debut, In the Heights.  Hamilton far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and was heralded as an instant classic, winning everything from Tony’s, to Grammy’s, to even a Pulitzer.  Naturally Hollywood would come a calling, but Lin-Manuel has resisted bringing the production to the silver screen just yet, stating that he wants to show to live on the stage for while.  However, he did give in to having a filmed version of the stage show, helping to bring the show to the masses without paying an arm and a leg for the ticket price.  But, what comes as a major chock to everyone is who he granted the rights to over everyone else: The Walt Disney Company.

Hamilton: The Film remains pretty much in tact from how it was first performed on Broadway when it opened.  Lin-Manuel Miranda and most of the original cast had moved on after nearly a year of performing, but they returned for a week long engagement in late 2016 for the purpose of filming this specific version.  An extra special treat for everyone who lucked out in getting a ticket to those exclusive shows, but having the show be filmed as it’s meant to be seen (performed on a stage in front of an audience) also grants the filmed version a level of authenticity that can’t be replicated in a movie studio.  The play covers the defining years of Alexander Hamilton’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) life.  We see him in his early years fresh out of school where he would meet several men who would leave an impact on his life; John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and most profoundly Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).  They all join the war for independence, serving under the command of General George Washington (Chris Jackson), who helps lead them and the new nation to victory;  much to the consternation of pompous King George of England (Jonathan Groff).  In the middle of service, Hamilton meets the wealthy Schuyler Sisters; Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  Though Angelica and Alexander develop a long standing bond, it’s ultimately Eliza who wins his heart and ends up wedding him.  After the Revolution, Washington is made President of the new nation and he asks Hamilton to join his cabinet.  However, Hamilton faces a new rivalry with Washington’s other cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Diggs and Onaodowan again, respectively).  All the while, Aaron Burr continues to advance politically, becoming ever more resentful of Hamilton along the way.

For a lot of people, having the chance to finally see the show in it’s entirety after so many years is a godsend, especially with it’s premiere falling on the 4th of July weekend where everyone is stuck at home.  During the show’s heyday, ticket prices would rise up into the hundreds and even thousands.  Not only that, but demand was so high, that waiting lists would stretch beyond a year for some people.  Even the touring version in select cities sold out well in advance, which just shows you how much of a cultural touchstone this musical was for many people.  Though many couldn’t get into the show, there was still the album that was made available around the same time, which gives the listener a piece of the experience as the entire show is sung through entirely.  And everyone, having watched the show or not, became familiar with it’s music.  Even still, demand remains high for watching the show as it’s intended to be seen, live on a stage, and I for one have tried to make that my own personal goal.  I struck out the first time that Hamilton came through Los Angeles on it’s first national tour in 2017.  Luckily, another tour quickly made it’s way back to So Cal, and I managed to snag a ticket for it, and at a reasonable price as well.  The musical was going to be staged at the legendary Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, right in the center of Tinseltown.  I made it my own personal mission to make my first exposure to this musical phenomenon as a live theater experience.  I never listened to the soundtrack, and I refrained from watching even the briefest of video teases.  I wanted to experience the play without any preconceived expectations and just let the show speak for itself in it’s intended venue.  Unfortunately, those plans did not pan out.  The Pantages closed its doors mere days before the show’s run was about to begin in accordance with social distancing guidelines.  Since my ticket was only a week or two later, it didn’t take long for that to get cancelled as well, for which I did receive a full refund.  So, when I learned that the show would be made available to watch on Disney+ this weekend, it came as a mixed blessing.  Yes, I could finally see the show in it’s entirety, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be getting that intimate live experience either.  Even still, I had to give it a watch to finally understand what all the hype has been about.

Believe me, this show comes with extremely high expectations, and a part of me worried that it may not live up to the hype that I’ve been hearing about for the last 5 years.  But, after now having watched Hamilton for the first time, I can definitely say that the hype is indeed justified.  No matter what format it’s presented in, on the stage or on the screen, Hamilton is a masterwork.  For one thing, it appeals greatly to my interest in History.  I always admire the way that filmmakers and stage directors can bring historical events to life and make us feel like we are witnessing them in action.  With Hamilton, the thing that struck me was just how incredibly well they are able to convey this epic story of the American Revolution and it’s founding fathers, with such a minimalist set.  There are no extravagant backdrops or flat-board set pieces that the actors interact with.  All that we see is a single wood scaffolding across the stage on which all the moments of the show are staged within.  Following the Brechtian style of minimalist theater, the lack of a literal set puts more emphasis on the performances, and through the actors, we are given the full breadth of the story.  I even admired how the show doesn’t even use a curtain to hide the stage between Acts or before and after the show.  It’s all up to the actors, the costume department, and the incredible lighting to deliver a sense of the story’s epic scope.  To the filmed version’s credit, it captures this craftsmanship perfectly, and gives the viewer at home a good sense of what they would see if this show was performed live in front of them.  Indeed, given that Lin-Manuel Miranda supervised this filmed version himself, he was granted the creative freedom to recreate the stage show nearly as complete as he possibly could.  Considering it went to Disney, however, he did have to make a compromise to bring it to a PG-13 rating.  As he put it himself, he literally gave Disney two F’s, as the four letter word can only be used once to retain that more family friendly rating.

Also, it’s interesting that Disney of all people won out in landing Hamilton.  In a way it does make sense; Lin-Manuel has had a strong working relationship with the studio since the premiere of Hamilton, having written songs for the movie Moana (2016), as well as performing a lead role in Mary Poppins Returns (2018).  He also has a yet to be fully detailed animated film in the works with the studio which he supposedly has a chief creative investment in.  So I guess it only made sense for him to give his blockbuster musical a home at Disney as well.  Originally, the musical was to screen in theaters nationwide this fall in a limited engagement, but with the pandemic changing everyone’s plans, Disney instead opted to move the premiere of Hamilton to Disney+, with a special 4th of July weekend launch.  It’s a shame that the theatrical experience had to be lost too, but even still, putting it on their streaming platform works to both build hype for the show as well as for Disney+ in general.  Really, for right now, it is the only venue on which the show can be seen, as Broadway has shut it’s doors for the remainder of the year, which the Pantages in Hollywood is likely going to follow in suit.  What I will say about watching the show for the first time in this way is that it hasn’t deterred me from wanting to see it staged live.  Sure, I have lost my chance of experiencing it for the first time as it was meant to be seen, but this comes as a fine alternative.  In fact, now I have something to contrast with once I do see the show live finally.  It’s kind of like how watching the movie version of something like Les Miserables or The Sound of Music differs greatly from how it’s performed on stage.  Sure those are movies, and Hamilton is a film of a stage performance, which is different.  But, you don’t see edits or crane shots on a stage.  Witnessing it in that respect may offer a different experience entirely once I finally attend a performance.

As far as the show itself as it appears on film, the experience is exhilarating.  You come in close to the actors in a way that you certainly wouldn’t get in the theater; even if you were sitting in the front row.  The subtleties that the actors work out in their performances really come through in their close-ups, and you have to marvel at just how much work they put into their facial gestures that probably wouldn’t register to all those people sitting up in the nosebleed sections of the theater.  Lin-Manuel of course is stellar as Hamilton himself, balancing all the complexities of this extremely complex man.  You have to wonder where he found the energy to write, orchestrate, and craft a performance all at the same time during the production of this musical.  Many of the other actors excel as well, especially the ones playing dual roles.  Daveed Diggs really shines in a Tony winning performance as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.  His flamboyant Jefferson may even be the highlight of the entire show.  I was also impressed with Phillipa Soo’s soulful portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, whose own story shines through in the narrative, giving her a historical spotlight that up until now has largely passed her by.  And of course the music is every bit as perfect as you’d expect.  It’s one thing to listen to it, but it’s another to see how it’s performed by the actors onstage.  The music is playful, heartbreaking, inspirational, and passionate, but above all else, it is daring.  You would’ve thought that telling the story of America’s founding with hip hop and rap was possibly sacrilege, but in the hands of a skilled artist like Lin-Maunel, it’s a perfect match.  The cabinet debates are perfectly re-framed as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, and it brings new life to the actual arguments that these great thinkers who built our nation put forth.  Whatever creative spark Lin-Manuel received when reading from Chernow’s book proved to be a stroke of genius captured in a bottle.  A hip hop musical about the most unlikely of founding fathers for this nation; it was a match made in heaven.

What is great now is that Hamilton is no longer an experience exclusive to the super rich or the super lucky; it belongs to anyone with access to a $7/month Disney+ subscription, where they can enjoy it for as many times as they desire.  For less than the value of the currency that Hamilton’s face currently is enshrined ($10 bill), the musical Hamilton is now available to be seen by literally millions across the globe.  And this film version also gives us the treat of seeing the show with it’s original complete cast.  Many of the performers have since moved on from the show; some following in Lin-Manuel’s footsteps and making it out to Hollywood to pursue a film career.  With this filmed version, their iconic performances will be forever enshrined.  I do give Disney a lot of credit for pursuing this for their platform, even with it’s more adult themed subject matter and language.  Even with some of the edits they made, the show remains around 99% in tact, and given the more family-friendly rating, it actually helps to make this more palatable for younger audiences.  We may even see this filmed version of the play shown in classrooms in the years ahead.  For right now, with the 4th celebrations being scaled down so much to keep families close to home this holiday, this premiere of the musical couldn’t be more welcome.  Hopefully, watching this show again may become a new tradition for many Americans.  I was really happy to have not been disappointed now that I’ve gotten my first taste of the musical itself.  I get all the hype now, and recognize that it was all very much justified.  I still wish that I had been able to see the show live in person first earlier this year, but that’s a choice that was completely out of my hands once the pandemic spiraled out of control.  I hope to revisit Hamilton again soon; both live and on the small screen.  For anyone with a Disney+ account right now, don’t miss your shot and watch it right now.  Happy Fourth everyone, and stay safe and healthy.

Rating: 8.5/10

Da 5 Bloods – Review

We definitely are living in a strange time right now.  The pandemic has kept us stuck at home for months now, with movie theaters remaining shuttered.  There is a light at the end of that tunnel, with theaters starting to be reopened this month, albeit at a much lower capacity.  But in the meantime, people have been turning to streaming services for fresh entertainment as an alternative, and that’s driving more attention to movies and shows premiering on those platforms than they might have had otherwise.  While this is all happening, America is also in the middle of a profound call for justice, with protests happening across the nation in response to killings at the hands of law enforcement.  The confluence of both the pandemic and the nationwide social unrest has shaken up the country in a way that we haven’t seen in several generations.  The fact that both are going on at the same time is making a lot of people broaden their perceptions about society, and that is reflecting greatly on the culture itself right now.  Just this week, we saw the newly launched HBO Max service pull Gone With the Wind off of it’s platform in a temporary move meant to re-deliver the film with more consideration to it’s historical context.  This of course led to an uproar about censorship, but it also led to a reckoning with the film industry about what kind of responsibility they hold with regards to the depictions and representations of people of color that extend throughout it’s history.  As I said, it’s a time of great turbulence both in society as a whole, but also with regards to the movie industry itself, and the media that we currently consume.  Now, if only a movie were to be released today that both deals head on with the social issues of the day while also bringing more of an audience to streaming content.  It would certainly be the right movie for this particular moment.

Enter the one and only Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of cinema’s most consistent provocative voices over the last four decades.  Though he started off strong in his career with the now iconic one-two punch of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), his movies in the years since have rarely reached that same lofty level.  His movies have either ranged from too mainstream (2006’s Inside Man) to too small to be recognized (2012’s Red Hook Summer).  But recently, Spike has seen something of a mid career resurgence.  This was due to a movie that clicked with audiences and also felt true to the director’s sensibilities that was apparent from his earliest work.  BlackKklansman (2018) was a real return to form for Spike Lee; provocative, biting, but also infused with a sense of humanity and a witty sense of humor.  It was Spike finding that fine line between making the movie that he wanted to make and having it match exactly what audiences wanted to see.  And the result gave him his biggest box office hit in decades, as well as his very first ever Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Certainly with the wind in his sails after BlackKklansman, Spike was ready to take on another project that satisfied his artistic and political sensibilities.  And thankfully, he found that avenue in a creative partnership with Netflix.  Not only would he be adapting one of his earliest films, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) into a series for the streamer, but he got Netflix to also bankroll what may be one of his most ambitious films to date; a Vietnam War epic called Da 5 Bloods.  This new film couldn’t have premiered at a more opportune time for Lee and Netflix, with race relations becoming such a hot button issue these last few weeks and the pandemic bringing a larger audience to streaming content.  It’s a movie that I think is perfect to review right now, and also because I don’t want to write a whole review on the disaster that is Artemis Fowl on Disney+.  So, does Da 5 Bloods continue Spike Lee’s hot streak or is the director losing his touch again.

Da 5 Bloods could be considered a Vietnam War movie, but only in the sense of looking at the long term after effects of the prolonged conflict.  Most of the movie takes place in the present day, as the last surviving members of an all black unit of soldiers called Da Bloods are reunited in a return trip to Vietnam.  Da Bloods have returned to the now peaceful country under the pretense of a vacation, but their real purpose for the trip is to retrieve something they left behind 50 years prior; a stash of solid gold bricks they found in the wreckage of a down plane in the Vietnam jungle.  Now, much older and having been haunted by their experiences over the years, Da Bloods must retrace their steps through the jungle in order to find the treasure they left behind.  Those soldiers include Otis (Clarke Peters), the mild-mannered orchestrator of the mission who finds out he left more behind in Vietnam than he realized; Eddie (Norm Lewis), the semi-successful troop veteran who is bankrolling their trip; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the group’s fun loving party animal; and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the MAGA-hat wearing, ultra conservative hot head who left Nam a changed person.  Before they go on their mission, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, having figured out what they are really up to.  In order to keep their mission a secret, the reluctantly have David accompany them, claiming an equal share.  As they make their way back to the gold, memories come flashing back to them about their years stuck in the jungle fighting in a war they never really believed in.  And many of their memories recall their beloved commander, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who made them all believe in themselves through hard times, and who they also had to leave behind in the jungle with the gold.  Once they find their treasure, and the remains of their commander, there is only one problem that remains, how do they make it back home in a country where the scars of war still run deep.

Da 5 Bloods is definitely not the kind of movie you’d expect right away.  Though it does show us glimpses of the Vietnam War in action throughout, it’s primarily about the aftermath of war and how some wounds never heal.  And in the hands of Spike Lee, it tackles even more far reaching issues with regards to race.  The movie was adapted by Spike Lee and his BlackKklansman collaborator Kevin Willmott from an earlier screenplay written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, and no doubt much of what was added to the script was a stronger examination of the racial factor within the story.  You can really feel the Spike Lee touch in this movie, and that in itself is what makes the movie work as well as it does.  To be honest, I for one believe Da 5 Bloods is one of Spike Lee’s best films ever; probably even the best he’s made since Malcolm X.  This movie is Spike working on all cylinders and it is magnificent.  It’s visually daring, it’s unapologetic in it’s messaging, and it is most importantly a compelling story of these diverse characters.  You can see his imprint all over the movie, whether it’s the way that he intercuts still photography into a scene, or the way he has his characters interact with each other in a shared humanity way, or with just the boldness of the way he frames and blocks his shots.  The movie starts out with a rundown of how both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were happening simultaneously in America, and how the two pivotal upheavals left their mark on black people who were fighting abroad.  This is a theme that Spike drives home throughout the movie, because we come to understand how each of these characters were shaped by the reality of fighting for a country that treated them as less than human and what in the long run they should be owed, both as people and as soldiers.

What I think is Spike Lee’s most interesting message in the film is the different ways that time has changed things since the war, and how some things never changed at all.  The men return to a Vietnam that is peaceful and serene, and welcoming to them despite all the killing they did there years before.  By contrast, it’s a country that seems to have moved on from the horrors of it’s past, while Da Bloods are living in a country where history keeps repeating itself; where black people are still struggling for equality despite some of the progress made.  The scars of the past are not right in front of them, but buried deep, like the land mines that still litter the land.  As Spike keeps reminding us throughout the movie, the split between what you owe your country and what the country owes you in return becomes this almost insurmountable divide.  Duty and Honor feels almost like making a pact with the devil.  And yet, through the memories that they share with each other about Stormin’ Norman, they keep their moral compass set towards staying true to their mission.  But, as Norman has become more distant as a memory, so is their bond to themselves.  The character of Paul in particular brings this theme out the most within the narrative.  I find it so interesting that Spike made Paul a Trump-supporting, ultra Patriot in his post Vietnam life.  That change seems so far removed from where the character should be, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of how far gone he has been post-war.  He’s turned so self-destructive that he’ll back the least likely politician to listen to his grievances, showing how much faith he has lost in the entire system.  The other Bloods have in their own ways have found some semblance of peace, but Paul never left the War behind; his whole life has been centered around finding more and more conflicts.  And that is the tragic element that Spike Lee perfectly encapsulates in the profound story of these characters.

And speaking more about the character of Paul, I feel that he is going to be the thing that most people are going to take away from this movie.  He is one of the most fascinating characters that I’ve seen brought to the screen in recent years.  Certainly the way he is written by Spike Lee is a big part of what makes him so captivating, but it’s actor Delroy Lindo who really makes Paul shine as a character.  Lindo has been a consistently reliable character actor for decades, but has never up to now been granted anything close to a leading man part.  This is a fantastic, tour-de-force performance from the veteran actor and should earn him a whole lot more attention after this.  He at the very least should be on everyone’s short list for an Academy Award nomination next year (if we do have the Oscars next year, hopefully).  One of my absolute favorite parts of the movie is a monologue delivered by Lindo as he treks his way through the jungle brush, with his face right in the camera staring directly at us.  It’s a powerful moment, and is something that only Spike Lee as a director can pull off, with Delroy giving it his all.  Though he is the stand-out character, the remaining ensemble cast are no slouches either.  Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Jonathan Majors all contribute stellar performances in the movie, and they are so believable as these characters, that you almost feel like they have indeed fight together in Vietnam.  It’s to Spike Lee’s credit that he didn’t go with A-List actors for these roles; any other studio might have pressured him to add Denzel Washington or Samuel L. Jackson to the roles.  The fact that these characters are played by relative unknowns is a great asset to the movie because it allows us to know the characters, and not be distracted by the fact that their played by a movie star.  The only blockbuster name in the movie is Chadwick Boseman, who works very well in his supporting role of Stormin’ Norman.  It might be jarring sometimes to see Black Panther in army fatigues, but whenever he’s on screen, he still commands his moments and gives you a good sense of why these old soldiers look back on their fallen comrade with such affection.

I also have to point out how artistically satisfying the movie is.  In an interesting move, Spike Lee lays around with aspect ratios in different parts of the film.  When we see Da Bloods first arriving in Vietnam and experiencing the contemporary changes that have happened since they were last there, the movie is framed cinematically in an anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  When we see flashbacks to the combat days, the movie shifts to a restrictive 4:3 ratio, as well as a grainy 16 mm look.  And then, in the last half of the movie, where the men enter the jungle to find the gold, the movie changes to a opened-up 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  It’s an interesting artistic choice that I felt really helped to separate the different parts of the movie in an interesting way.  It seems like when he wants to use the wider aspect ratio, it’s in the scenes that feel more cinematic, like a mainstream Hollywood movie.  When it’s in the Academy standard 4:3, it’s to emulate the feel of actual wartime footage taken in the midst of the conflict.  And when he uses the 1.85 ratio, it’s to make the movie feel more gritty, with more handheld, documentary style photography.  Naturally, like most other Spike Lee movies, Da 5 Bloods is awash with color.  He makes great use of the actual Vietnam locations that he was allowed to shoot within, although most of the jungle scenes were done in neighboring Thailand, due to the fact that the Vietnamese countryside is still a hot zone of un-triggered landmines.  Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, working with Spike for the first time, really captures a serene beauty to the Southeast Asian locations.  The color of the movie especially makes this film feel like Spike returning to form as a visual story-teller because I can’t recall a movie of his that used color this vividly since Do the Right Thing.  Even though it’s a Netflix movie, which means that you won’t find it playing on a big screen anytime soon, or ever, it’s still a bold, epic experience that you should seek out the biggest screen you can find to fully appreciate.

If you are already a Netflix subscriber, there’s really no reason why you should be passing this one over.  It is a remarkably profound story about race, war, trauma, and friendship that seems like the best possible movie we should be watching in this moment.  It’s pointed in it’s social messaging, but never preachy.  Spike knows first and foremost that this is a story about people, and it’s their story that drives the narrative, and not the larger issues at play.  What the movie represents most is Spike Lee transforming into the director he was always meant to be, but rarely was given the opportunity to achieve it.  I don’t think that he’s going to be a director that will only occasionally knock one out of the park, but will now have every one of his movies become an event worth celebrating; finally achieving the due recognition that his peers like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson always seem to receive.  He’s managed to deliver two masterpieces in a row with BlackKklansman and Da 5 Bloods, and I am eager to see what he has next in store.  The movie works so well not just as a reflection of one of the darkest conflicts in this country’s history, but also as a brilliant character study.  Delroy Lindo absolutely needs to remain in the conversation for an Oscar, and I’ll be very upset if he’s not given at least a nomination.  And for people right now looking for a film that examines the history of this country with regards to race, this movie will offer a valuable lesson on those who were tragically left behind in a war that should have brought them home honored for their service.  Even separated from this tumultuous moment in time, I think that this will be a movie well remembered in both Spike Lee’s larger body of work and as a compelling statement made within American cinema as a whole.  Bloods don’t die, they multiply.

Rating: 9/10

Scoob! – Review

It’s interesting how much change has been going on in Hollywood during a pandemic with regards to the way it’s able to roll out it’s new content.  With movie theaters remaining shuttered, at least up to now, Hollywood has had a revenue stream completely cut off, and it’s been leading them towards finding a different mode of distribution.  The streaming channels have provided one avenue, but it’s a area that hasn’t branched into the full market just yet as a sub-plant for the hole left behind by the closed theaters.  In the wake of the pandemic, some studios are trying out something different, which is Video On Demand rentals, where customers on video rental platforms like Amazon and Itunes can pay a full upfront price to rent or purchase the movie digitally.  Thus far, the studios have chosen to bypass the theaters altogether and opt for this VOD service instead to premiere a handful of new movies on.  This has caused great concern from the theater market, who see the move as a threat to their hopes of recovery after this pandemic.  AMC, the largest theater chain in the world and one of the hardest hit by the shutdown, even took action against Universal Studios for breaking from their distribution agreement by premiering Trolls World Tour (2020) on digital VOD without negotiating with them.  In retaliation, AMC is now banning all future Universal films from their theaters, with the Regal chain joining them in solidarity.  This spat between AMC and Universal however is not indicative of the industry as a whole.  Warner Brothers is likewise setting some of their movies for VOD distribution, but they took the extra measure of notifying the theater chains that this would be the case, and it’s helped to maintain their ongoing agreement in tact, which Warner will definitely need because they are the first ones up once the theaters reopen later this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 84 still scheduled for theatrical premieres.  But for now, they are in need of a boost on the VOD side, and they’re most hopeful bet this month is the animated film, Scoob!

The new movie is another in a long line of modern reboots of long-standing IP; in this case, the characters from Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo franchise.  Created by animation veterans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera during their successful run as producers of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s, Scooby Doo, Where are You? was an instant hit with the “flower power” generation, and it’s success would continue to propel a further blossoming of new shows from the Hanna Barbera studios for decades.  The only thing is, how do you make a product of it’s time resonate so many years later.  For Hanna Barbera, the key to success was always in maintaining a connection to the audience through the characters.  Thought the times would change, Scoody and his gang would remain true to their cores.  Scooby the lovable, mischievous talking dog, Shaggy his ever devoted clumsy friend, Fred the headstrong leader of their mystery solving gang, Daphne the empathetic optimist who would always lift everyone’s spirits, and Velma, who let’s face it, was honestly always too smart to be running around with all these goofballs, and solved most of the mysteries almost single-handedly.  The formula would remain the same throughout most of Scooby’s history, with the rag tag group discovering a super natural mystery involving ghost, monsters, or extra-terrestrials, and eventually uncovering the hoax behind them, usually with an unmasking on the real perpetrator.  The Scooby Doo cartoons have often been imitated and parodied, but the franchise itself has nevertheless maintained it’s popularity and has seen many updates throughout the years.  This year, they have made the jump to computer animation with Warner Brothers new film titled Scoob!  The only question remains is whether it’s a Scooby do or a Scooby don’t.

The story shows us the Scooby gang at it’s very beginnings, with Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker) meeting a young Shaggy (Iain Armitage) on the sandy shores of Venice Beach.  The two become instantly inseparable.   On the following Halloween, they meet three other children, Fred (Pierce Gagnon), Daphne (McKenna Grace) and Velma (Ariana Greenblatt), and venture into a supposed haunted house where they solve their first real mystery.  When they grow older, they decide to make their mystery solving business legit, but their investor has reservations about where Scooby and Shaggy (Will Forte) fit in, seeing them as a liability.  With Scooby and Shaggy sidelined, the gang of Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez) must continue their work on their own.  Shaggy and Scooby meanwhile are attacked by a mysterious horde of killer robots.  The duo are almost captured until a mysterious ship intercepts them.  They soon learn that it’s the Falcon Fury, the home base of Shaggy’s favorite super hero, the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his robotic canine companion Dynomutt (Ken Jeong).  They inform Shaggy and Scooby that the robot army had been sent by a villain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who is hunting down giant skulls belonging to the hell hound Cerberus in hopes of opening the gates to the Underworld, and Scooby it turns out is the key.  Scooby agrees to help out Blue Falcon and his crew, but his growing partnership with Falcon begins to put a strain on his friendship with Shaggy, who begins to feel unwanted and forgotten.  With Dick Dastardly’s sinister plan quickly taking form, and Scooby’s gang becoming increasingly splintered apart, the question remains if Scooby alone can be the hero everyone is telling him he should be.

Like I said earlier, this is not the first time Scooby has gone through an update to the present day.  A couple of live action films were made in the early 2000’s, written by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, of all people.  And there have been numerous new series revivals and direct to video movies made over the years as well.  This new version does the same as a lot of other recent animated adaptations of long dormant franchises have done, like Illumination’s Dr. Suess films and the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants CGI movie.  In the hopes of remaining relevant to an audience raised on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, Scooby inevitably was going to make the jump to 3D eventually, and that kind of transition certainly had the potential to work out.  Computer animation has certainly advanced to the point where you can create models of these characters that remain true to their original hand-drawn designs, and also still retain the Hanna Barbera style of simple, limited animation that made the original show so distinct.  There was never any doubt that a new Scooby Doo movie would look good in Computer Animation.  It’s just that, there needed to be care taken with the story in order to make it worth that effort.   Unfortunately, the movie falls well short in the story department.  There could have been two different directions that the filmmakers could have gone in updating Scooby Doo to the modern day; either making the story more sophisticated and reflective of our present day, or just throw in a lot of topical reference that will date the film horribly in a few years.  Unfortunately, Warner Brothers went with the latter and it really drags the movie down and in many ways kind of insults the legacy of the characters.

The thing that really stings is that the movie actually starts off strong, with the prologue showing the characters in their early years.  I actually thought the opening of this movie did a fine job of establishing the characters in a charming, heartfelt and quite funny way.  However, the movie quickly looses its footing once the characters grow into adults, and I think you can easily pinpoint the exact moment when the movie goes downhill, and that’s the moment an awkwardly shoehorned Simon Cowell cameo is thrown in.  From that moment on, the movie just becomes a steady stream of tired pop culture puns and break-neck pacing that gives the audience no time to settle.  I really wish that the remainder of the movie had maintained the easy-going pacing of the first 10 minutes or so.  I also think that the other big problem with the movie is that it completely abandons the Scooby Doo formula that has proven effective for over 50 years in favor of something that is more akin to a Marvel or DC superhero film.  And that just doesn’t fit with Scooby Doo.  There’s no mystery to uncover; we know who the bad guy is from the very beginning and there is no attempt at all to leave our heroes in the shadows.  We’ve honestly seen this story done a million times before and adding Scooby Doo to the mix gives us nothing new.  In fact, Scooby an the gang feel very out of place in this kind of story.  The lack of originality in the story is compounded even further by the tired use of pop culture references, which is basically animation’s emergency solution for covering-up the shortcomings of a lackluster script.  There are so many references thrown around to Netflix, Tinder, Hashtags, Harry Potter, and even dabbing.  And it doesn’t come off as funny; it just cries of desperation.  This is especially insulting for a movie adapting one of the more cleverly plotted series of it’s era.  It doesn’t help that one of the most notable marketing ploys used for the film was a cross promotion with the Tik Tok app, showing that the filmmakers was more interested in making this movie more pop culture savvy than narratively engaging.  Even the hip sounding abbreviated title Scoob! reeks of desperation.  Warner Brothers honestly shouldn’t have tried to reinvent the wheel on this one, because there is a reason why the formula for the show has been used for so many years; because it works, and abandoning it just takes away all the charm that it could have had.

The characters in the story particularly suffer because of this lack of identity.  I hate the fact that the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to split up the Scooby gang, because breaking them apart just robs the movie of all the character dynamics that could have been used to drive the humor in the movie.  I’m sorry, but Fred, Daphne and Velma on their own is not a terribly exciting bunch.  For some reason, they made Fred dumber than he ever was on the show as a way to fill in some of that missing comic relief that would have normally come from Shaggy and Scooby.  The voice acting from Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez is passable, but the movie always drags a bit more when it returns to their story-line.  Shaggy and Scooby do work out a bit better in their characterizations.  Veteran voice actor takes on the role of Scooby fairly well, filling in for the late Don Messick, and it’s kind of special that he is a part of this film, given that his career actually started on the original animated series.  Welker was the original voice of Fred Jones on the series, and that gig has since blossomed into a 50 year career in voice acting.  He even occasionally returns to the role of Fred for various projects, but more recently he has been the go to guy for Scooby Doo, and it’s good that Warner Brothers still honors that.  Will Forte, while not quite hitting that Casey Kasem tenor in the role of Shaggy, still manages to do an adequate job.  I did also get a couple chuckles out of Mark Wahlberg’s “aw shucks” performance as the dim witted Blue Falcon.  But, I definitely have to say that the movie is stolen by Jason Isaac’s over-the-top performance as Dick Dastardly.  He breathes much needed life into this film every time he is on screen, and is by far the best part of the movie.  It’s almost like Jason Isaacs was the only actor aware that he was making a cartoon and he gives a full camp performance worthy of the medium.  It’s just too bad that nothing else within the movie rises to that level.

The animation itself is also a mixed bag.  While the characters of Scooby and Shaggy do look on model compared to their original designs, the same does not hold up for most of the other characters.  The movie gives this strange plastic feel to the human characters that makes their models feel a little off.  This is especially noticeable in a character like Fred, who is the most visually different of all the original series characters in this movie.  It’s in that weird, uncanny valley area where the characters are slightly exaggerated to fit within the colorful cartoony world, but also grounded in a more life-like physicality that just doesn’t mix well together.  The worst example of this occurs when we meet Blue Falcon’s forgettable assistant Dee Dee (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), with her life like physicality clashing with her plastic-like skin.  It’s like she’s a living action figure, and I have no doubt that there is a toy line model that bears the same striking resemblance to this character.  It’s only when the movie exaggerates the character models that they come to life.  Dick Dastardly, again, represents the best of this, as his distinctive look does leave an impression.  I do recognize that the movie does still retain a high quality look throughout.  It’s not animated poorly at all; it just suffer from some poor choices in character modeling.  I like that the animators did include some nods to the slapstick bits done in the Hanna Barbera style that we all remember from the shows.  And also, credit to the sound effects team for throwing in the original Hanna Barbera sound clips in certain moments as well, like the famous twinkle toes bit used in everything from Scooby Doo to The Flintstones.  It’s something to help please the long time Hanna Barbera fans who are looking for something that does honor the legacy of these characters, which sadly is not in abundance in this movie.

So, is Scoob! worth the $20 rental for home viewing.  Honestly, if you just want something to distract your kids for an hour and a half, you may find some use out of the movie, but for those who were hoping for a satisfying reboot of a beloved old franchise, I’d say save your money.  Scoob! is little more than a cash grab, hoping to revitalize a known intellectual property and cynically mine it for some easy cash based in it’s nostalgia value.  The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to forget exactly what made Scooby Doo work so well as a franchise for so many years, and that’s the simple but effective formula that it’s maintained for 50 years.  It’s trying to be less of a Scooby Doo movie and more of a super hero movie, and it’s just dragging the Scooby gang along for the cliched, predictable ride.  Apart from an emotionally effective prologue and a entertaining villain, there really is nothing to make this movie stand out as a work of animation.  The only reason we are really talking about this movie at all is because of it’s unorthodox way of reaching audiences in the middle of this ongoing pandemic.  Trolls World Tour made headlines with it’s successful roll-out online, and Warner Brothers is hoping the same will happen with Scoob!  Releasing with this kind of notoriety will certainly garner more headlines for Scoob! than it otherwise might have had in a Summer season where it would’ve had to contend with another Pixar film.  But, believe me when I say that Scoob! is a forgettable waste of time that doesn’t nearly do justice to the long standing legacy of it’s characters.  It’s not going to be a game changer that will bring the theatrical market to it’s knees.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Brothers never releases a movie this way again.  If you want a satisfying Scooby snack, just re-watch the original series again, or any of it’s adequate spin-offs.  Scoob! is nothing to wag a dog’s tail at.

Rating: 5/10

Trolls World Tour – Review

As I wrote a couple weeks back, one of the biggest casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the movie theater industry, which as of this writing is pretty much on life support.  In this unimaginable domino effect that happened pretty much overnight, Hollywood pulled all of the remaining Spring season movies off of the schedule, in order to comply with all state and city ordinances to remain at home to slow the spread of the virus.  And this has resulted in a devastating disruption of the traditional movie theater business, which is in danger of not being able to survive the next few weeks, let alone months.  For Hollywood, the same disruption is also having ripple effects, with all productions shut down indefinitely.  We won’t see the effects of this for a while, as the delay in movie premieres still will give us a back log of all the movies that were at or near completion. But this has presented an interesting dilemma for Hollywood; how do you try to get your movie out there in a disrupted market like this one.  With movie theaters and film festivals out of the question, all that is left is home theater distribution.  Most studios have opted to give some space to allow for a return to normalcy in the market by pushing their movies back to later this year, or even further into the next one.  But there were other movies that were too far along in their marketing cycle to put off their premiere for another 6-12 months.  The movie either had to come out now, or otherwise it would lose money.  So, to salvage some of the market cost lost through the closures of the movie theaters, we have seen many early premieres of this year’s spring slate of movies on demand through streaming.  And among them is a big title that’s going to end up bypassing the theatrical experience altogether; Dreamworks Animation’s Trolls World Tour.

Trolls World Tour is a follow-up to the modestly successful animated feature from Dreamworks based on the popular toy line.  Being one of the premiere names in animation, Dreamworks was gearing their animated sequel as a major title for the spring season.  Animated movies always perform with strong legs, and the wide open Spring season would’ve given it the breathing room to do so.  With an Easter weekend premiere, and a month separating it from the premiere of Onward from rival studio Pixar, all that Trolls World Tour had to do was withstand counter-programming from the likes of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.  And then everything fell apart overnight.  Onward’s unfortunate timing led to a very short two week run in theaters before they had to close, and in the weeks after, they had to quickly bring their film onto their streaming platform, just to keep it in the public eye and not make all those marketing and merchandising expenses go to waste.  Trolls likewise ended up in the same position, with so many marketing tie-ins having made it into stores in the past few weeks, there was no way for them to put the cow back in the barn as it were.  So, parent company Universal decided to enact a bold experiment in order to make do with the situation that they have.  They would release Trolls World Tour on it’s scheduled premiere date as a premium rental on streaming sites across the web.  Normally, this would’ve been seen as a kiss of death, as movies getting dumped onto streaming was like the new straight-to-video; a marker of lower quality.  But, given the circumstances that we are in, with the future of movie theaters in doubt, the industry is looking at Trolls World Tour‘s premiere online as a possible harbinger of what the future of market may be.  The only question is, will it work or is it just a stop-gap before things can return to normal.

Trolls World Tour takes place more or less where the last film left off.  Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) has been given the title of Queen, and she is beloved by all her subjects, including the survivalist Branch (Justin Timeberlake).  One day, she receives notice that another troll queen named Barb (Rachel Bloom) has been attacking other troll kingdoms across the world, and is on her way to invading theirs as well.  Poppy learns of the history of the different troll tribes and how they all represent different kinds of music: Funk, Country, Classical, Techno, Rock and Pop, of which Poppy’s kingdom is representative of.  Each tribe are the protectors of an enchanted strings which if combined together and were brought under the control of any select tribe would allow for that type of music to dominate all others.  Barb is on a mission to collect all the strings at any cost and bring domination of all the other troll tribes under her own Rock music.  While Branch takes this threat as an indication for all of the Pop trolls to seek shelter immediately, Poppy hopes to find Barb herself and reason with her, with Branch reluctantly tagging along.  On their way, they receive assistance from a Country troll named Hickory (Sam Rockwell), who helps to guide them along their way.  However, Barb has sent different troll bounty hunters from some of the minor kingdoms like Smooth Jazz, Raggaeton, K-Pop, and Yodelling to stop Poppy from thwarting her plans.  Meanwhile, some of Poppy’s closest friends seek out to find out more about these other troll kingdoms that they knew nothing about before, including the four-legged Cooper (Ron Funches) and the overweight Biggie (James Corden).  All together, each and every troll is on their way towards destiny, and whoever succeeds will either force domination of one brand of music over all, or bring harmony with all music coming together.

I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to this movie, or even the first one to begin with.  I particularly rolled my eyes at the idea to begin with, because it looked like Dreamworks was just wasting their talents on what I thought was essentially a commercial, both for the toy line it was based off of and for the inevitable tie-in album that was going to be sold around the same time.  But, given the fact that I am unfortunately without many options of movies to review for the time being, and may have to wait until as far as July before I can even see the inside of a movie theater again (if at all), I decided that I had no other alternative than to take the plunge into the Troll franchise.  And, perhaps it’s maybe me being too judgmental at first based on first impressions based on the marketing for the movie, but quite like how The Lego Movie (2014) subverted my expectations and was way better than I thought it would ever be, I had a better than expected reaction to the movie Trolls (2016) than I thought.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as good as The Lego Movie, but for what it was, it was passable entertainment in the end which is better than the excruciating chore that I thought I was in store for.  There were still many problems that I had with it, but I admired it’s consistency with it’s story and the fact that it was a very well animated film with a talented cast performing some catchy songs.  But, how does Trolls World Tour stand up.  Well, while I can say that I have seen much worse animated features, and even worse animated sequels (Frozen II anyone?), World Tour unfortunately felt a little underwhelming in comparison to it’s already passable predecessor.  If anything, it lacks the consistency that I felt held the original film together, and everything that was flawed only felt amped up in this follow-up.  There are still some good things about it, but not enough to make me heap praise on the film.

I’d say where the movie falters is that it tries to do too much.  The titular “World Tour” allows for some creative settings to explore, but the break neck pace of the story doesn’t give us much time to soak it all in.  Just as we get settled in one of the new kingdoms, we suddenly jump into another, screeching to a halt any interesting developments that could have been further explored.  The Classical Troll kingdom in particular is given mere minutes of screen-time before it’s off to the next setting.  Sometimes one of the best things a sequel can do is to really explore the outside world more, helping to build it’s world, but I felt that this movie did too much of that.  There is enough world-building in this movie to fill maybe three movies worth, and what ends up being sacrificed in the process is other crucial things like character development and the raising of the stakes.  And that is where I feel that the movie falls apart.  The characters of Poppy and Branch really  don’t have not much to do in this film as all of their key character development happened in the previous film, so either their stories had to be regressed a bit to offer some extra tension in this movie, like the romantic subplot which for some reason seemed to be rebooted at the start of this movie.  Supporting characters really have nothing more to do than to just pop up and offer some comic relief.  One thing that I did miss about the original film is the streamlined plot of the Trolls learning to overcome the threat of their native enemy, the repulsive Bergens, and even find a way to live in harmony with them.  The Bergens, by the way, are completely side-lined in this movie, which is too bad because their development in the original, from monstrous menaces to fully dimensional characters, was one of the highlights of the first film.  Though World Tour has a lot more of the world to play around in, it unfortunately does so in an underwhelming way.

That’s not to say that everything about it is bad.  For one thing, the visuals in this movie, much like the original, are pretty spectacular.  You’ll probably never find a movie this year or any with such a vibrant color palette.  And though the different worlds are never effectively explored, they do still offer some imaginative visuals whenever they’re seen.  I especially love the craft materials texture that permeates the entire movie.  One of the most clever ideas I noticed was a waterfall being represented by ribbons of paper, like the kind we would make in school with construction paper rolled around a pencil.  Even the skin texture of the characters themselves are impressive, creating a look of felt cloth.  Though the story may be meandering, the look of the movie is likely going to impress even the most cynical of critics, which is a testament to the hard work done by the artists working at Dreamworks Animation.  These guys have become one of the most trusted names in the animation world for a reason, and the visuals here are proof of that.  Also, though I felt that the execution of the story was lacking, I did really appreciate the message that was buried at it’s center.  It’s actually even a more provocative one found in the original.  Remarkably, the movie takes a subtle jab at the music industry itself, and the way that it homogenizes so much music in order to make it what it considers “mainstream.”  There’s a strong message here about the need to retain the cultural and racial identities that are tied to various forms of music, because it’s an important aspect of retaining the diversity that keeps so much of the culture running.  It’s an especially potent message to have at a time like this where we are being driven more apart than ever, and it illustrates the need to have all voices be heard.  I didn’t expect a message like that to come from a movie like this, so I’m glad that they included it here.

It’s understandable that given such a keen focus this movie has on the element of music that the cast itself would be made up of many talented singers as well as actors.  And like the first film, this is movie full of songs tailor made for the actors performing them.  Anna Kendrick, of course, is a triple threat performer with numerous films to her credit that take advantage of her vocal range; most notably the Pitch Perfect series.  She brings a lot of energy to the role of Poppy which is an asset that helps to carry her even over some of the mediocre writing.  Even though her character is less interesting this time around, Kendrick still charms with her peppy performance.  The same unfortunately can’t be said about Justin Timberlake, who still feels miscast in this role.  He can certainly sing the songs with no problem, but his higher pitched voice just doesn’t feel right for the rustic, cynical character that he is playing.  In addition, the character Branch has little to nothing to do in this movie, so Timberlake just feels lost here in between songs.  What I do like in this cast is some of the tribute casting that the movie does for some legendary performers.  During the course of the movie, we meet some of the elders of the different kingdoms, including King Quincy (named after the legendary composer Quincy Jones) and is voiced by the godfather of funk himself, George Clinton.  There is also King Thrash of the Rock kingdom, who is voiced by none other than Ozzy Osbourne himself.  It’s a treat to hear these two legends participating in this tribute to music styles of all kinds, and the fact that they are there is a nod to their significant contributions to the musical landscape as a whole.  All the different musical covers are also spirited and well done.  Sure, it’s about selling a soundtrack album, but I could think of much more shameless uses of pop songs used in animated movies (see Illumination Animation’s entire catalog).  At least the actors here are performing their own singing, even in minor roles.  One particular new character that did given me a laugh every now and then was a raping baby troll with glitter skin voiced by SNL alum Kenan Thompson, who is very funny here.  A good cast goes a long way, and it helps this movie as a whole in general.

It’s hard to say if this is the future of movie distribution.  If the industry wanted to change the industry forever, they would’ve chosen a more compelling film than this to center the experiment around.  Trolls World Tour is passable entertainment, much like it’s predecessor, and is not really something that is demanding to be seen on any screen, big or small.  It certainly isn’t quite worth the premium asking price of $19.99 that you have to pay right now, although if you have young children that are interested, this might actually be a good value, rather than what the box office price would’ve been originally.  For children, it’s harmless enough entertainment, with a surprisingly potent message at it’s core.  But, otherwise, I’d say watch it only if you are a really big fan of the original.  If you are, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did.  It’s certainly far from the worst animation that I’ve ever seen, but no where near the best either; not even among Dreamworks animated films.  The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to me still is the gold standard for the studio, and a prime example of building upon something that was already great with even more worthwhile character and world building.  What I liked so much about those movies is that throughout all three movies, the filmmakers were never afraid of taking risks and trying new things, consistently raising the stakes.  Trolls World Tour is a safe sequel that tries to expand it’s world, but falls well short of achieving it’s lofty goals.  I for one am just hoping that it’s release on demand was just out of necessity and not a harbinger of the new normal in distribution.  We need the movie theaters back, and World Tour‘s terrible timing was just the result of things falling well out of control for everyone involved.  Who knows, I might have felt different about this movie had I seen it in a theater with an audience.  As it stands, it’s a noble effort of a sequel, but one that both in itself and in it’s venue of viewership, makes you long for something better.

Rating: 7/10

Onward – Review

In all it’s 25 years of making feature films, the one thing that Pixar has definitely figured out is it’s formula.  Through all their films, they seem to like returning to the same mode of story, which is taking their characters on a journey.  Whether it’s Woody venturing outside Andy’s room in Toy Story (1995), or Flik levaing the ant colony in A Bug’s Life (1998), or Wall-E leaving Earth for the cosmos, or Carl Fredrickson flying his house all the way to South America in Up (2009), or Miguel accidentally finding himself in the Land of the Dead in Coco (2017).  The studio loves to take their characters out of their comfort zones and bring them into a strange new world.  And why change a formula that has worked so well for them.  If anything, their movies suffer when they stray too far from the formula (Cars 2‘s pointless spy movie diversion for example).  It’s a formula that also works well with the other thing that defines most Pixar films, which is their ability to re-imagine the world through a different perspective.  This includes the microscopic world of insects in A Bug’s Life, or the one inhabited by monsters in Monsters Inc. (2001), or one inhabited entirely by sentient vehicles in Cars (2006), or one entirely within the mind of a twelve year old girl in Inside Out (2015).  Because of this, we certainly know a Pixar movie when we see one, and that allows the filmmakers who work at the studio to craft a whole variety of stories that fit well into that template.  While most other animation studios attempt to pick up that Pixar formula and run with it, they can never actually match it.  Pixar has refined their style over a quarter of a century now, and it really only works well because of the unique creative atmosphere that they have managed to cultivate at their Emeryville campus.  And that creative spark continues into this new decade, with the release of their 22nd feature; Onward.

Onward on the surface appears to be the prototypical Pixar film; carrying over all the same features that I mentioned above.  It’s a film that takes place in a world parallel to our own, but with a twist; in this case, a world of fantasy set in suburbia.  It’s also a film that takes it’s characters on a journey, which fittingly matches a society that has it’s origins in swords and sorcery.  In many ways, it’s almost too prototypical, like a parody of a Pixar movie that you would expect from another studio.  But, what makes the difference is not the world that Pixar sets it’s story in, but what’s at the center of the story itself.  And the origins of this story comes from a surprisingly personal place.  Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University (2013), based the story of Onward on something that actually happened in his own life.  In the movie, the two main characters have lived without their father for most of their life, with the younger brother having been born after his father’s passing.  This parallel’s the real life upbringing of Scanlon, who never met his own father either.  The scenario of the movie comes from a discovery he made many years later while searching through his father’s old things, and in there he found a tape recording his father had made many years ago.  Through this, he was able to hear his father’s voice for the first time, which had a profound effect on him.  Scanlon’s example is one of those things that really sets Pixar apart, considering how much personal emotion each of the filmmakers put into their own work.  The only question left is, how does Onward stack up within the extremely high standards of the Pixar canon, and does the personal story underneath manage to give studio’s formula that extra bit of new magic as well.

The story takes place in fantasy world where sorcery and enchantment reigned.  Creatures such as elves, centaurs, trolls and unicorns all coexisted and thrived thanks to the existence of magic in the world.  But since magic was difficult to master, the creatures sought out easier ways to earn a living, so they turned to modern conveniences like light bulbs, cars, and airplanes.  Eventually, magic faded from the world, all but forgotten in a modern, fast-paced society.  Living in this modern world is the elven Lightfoot family.  Raised by their single mom Laurel (Julia Loius-Dreyfus),  brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) navigate through the struggles of growing up into men, especially under the shadow of their beloved and long departed father.  Barley is a man child, impulsive and very much into fantasy role playing games.  Ian is a shy introvert who wants to be just like the Dad he never knew, but doesn’t quite know how to start.  On Ian’s 16th Birthday, he receives a surprise gift from their mom, which turns out to be a wizard staff left by his dad.  In addition, he gave Ian a visitation spell which can bring him back to life for one whole day.  With encouragement from Barley, Ian soon learns that the wizard staff responds to his commands, and he begins the visitation spell, only to have it short circuit halfway.  Right after, Ian and Barley find that their Dad has returned, but only from the feet to the waistline.  With this unfortunate result, the two brothers must search for another Phoenix Stone in order to complete the spell before the day runs out and their Dad disappears completely.   Taking advantage of Barley’s knowledge of ancient mystical lore, they set out to follow an ancient trail to find the lost stone, with their father’s legs in tow.  This includes seeking out the help of the mighty warrior, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) who now manages a family restaurant.  All the while, Laurel tries to find her boys before they get into trouble, aided by her centaur police officer boyfriend, Officer Colt (Mel Rodriquez).  With time against them, can the Lightfoot brothers escape the perils of this quest, both old and new.

With a fantasy world setting as it’s backdrop, you would think that this movie was set up for Pixar to just go all out and create the most imaginative world they’ve ever made in one of their movies.  Surprisingly, that’s not what they did at all.  While it does take advantage of it’s re-imagined world, Onward is actually one of the more grounded Pixar movies that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Far more focus was put onto the story and the characters than on filling out this fantasy world that they inhabit, which actually comes across as surprisingly small.  But, you know what, it actually works to the movie’s benefit.  Whereas most Pixar wannabe movies put too much focus on the world-building of their films, Pixar instead puts the focus exactly where it needs to be, which is on the characters and their story.  As a result, Onward is a shining example of the Pixar formula working to a “T”.  The characters first and foremost must be relatable and worthy of attention, and that would’ve been impossible if the eye was too often drawn into the background details of this world, which don’t get me wrong, are still impressively realized.  I get the feeling that the movie will probably benefit from repeat viewings, because I’m sure that people will want to see this multiple times in order to see all the details that they missed before.  All the while, Ian and Barley’s story takes the journey formula that Pixar has mastered and builds it towards a satisfying, and surprisingly heartwarming finale.  It’s easy to see the heart that Dan Scanlon brought to the movie, basing so much of it off of his own experience (minus the magical quest part).  It’s one of those stories that is not about the ultimate destination, but about the internal changes that the characters go through that make the movie resonate so well.  It also doesn’t take the easy route either, with characters sometimes revealing deep rooted flaws that often manifest in ways that they might not have expected.

The one downside to Onward‘s more grounded story is that it also kind of minimizes the ultimate impact as well.  Stakes remain very low in this movie.  The Lightfoot brothers go off on a quest, but never really leave their city limits that far behind, making their world remain relatively small.  There is no dark presence there to get in their way, no existential threat.  It’s just two boys on a treasure hunt.  And while the story that we get does have a lot of heart and is incredibly entertaining throughout, I also feel that this kind of character journey played out much more effectively in other Pixar films.  I didn’t really feel the emotional impact here as strongly as I did in say Coco, which had a real profound life and death struggle at it’s center.  By the end of that movie, Pixar had built up the stakes of the movie so much, that the simple act of a boy singing to his ailing great grandmother took on this profound importance.  I didn’t feel that same impact with Onward, and I don’t know quite why.  I believe that director Scanlon put as much heart into his underlying story as the filmmakers of Coco did; perhaps even more so.  Maybe it’s the fact that there was less of a lasting effect that the final denouement moment than what Coco had.  A similar effect happens with the movie Up, which even though it’s grounded in a realistic world like ours, it’s concluding chapter feels far more impactful, mainly because the stakes became higher by the end.  It may be that it’s not where the story ultimately concludes that didn’t resonate enough, but rather that the character’s journey didn’t leave as much of an impact.  Ian and Barley are closely tied as brothers in the beginning of the movie, and remain so to the very end, changing very little in their relationship.  Their journey is not a terrible one by any means, but it’s also one that may not have taken the full arc that it probably could have.

While the plot does have it’s shortcomings, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty more to love about this movie.  Chief among them is the voice cast, which is a top notch one even by Pixar standards.  Taking full advantage of their connection to Marvel through the big tent Disney connection they have, Pixar managed to bring in some big names to play the Lightfoot brothers, namely the two Peters of Marvel (Quill and Parker respectively, otherwise known as Star Lord and Spider-Man).  Chris Pratt in particular is especially well cast as the free-spirited, roleplay-obsessed Barley.  Between this and his work in the Lego Movies, Pratt has proven to be remarkably adept at voice acting, bringing an incredible amount of personality to each character he plays.  I especially love how well he balances the more goofball aspects of the character with the deeper, more sincere moments he has later on in the film.  At the same time, he finds a perfect match with Tom Holland playing the role of Ian.  Holland has pretty much become the master of awkward teenager roles in a way we haven’t seen since the days of Michael J. Fox in his prime, and he brings an incredible amount of heart to the character of Ian.  I wonder if he and Chris Pratt recorded some of their scenes together, because their chemistry comes across so strongly that you almost feel like their riffing off one another in real time.  At the same time, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings an extra amount of heart to the movie as Laurel, making it her second major role in a Pixar flick after giving voice to Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life twenty years ago.  Octavia Spencer also does a great job voicing the Manticore, perfectly imagining an overburdened creature who has long abandoned her wilder instincts.  The strengths of these characters no doubt benefited from a cast who worked so well together, especially with the two brothers at the center.  And much of the charm in the movie comes from the perfect casting that extends pretty much across the board throughout the movie.

While the world that’s been imagined for the film does come across as pretty scaled down for the most part, it is still beautifully realized.  Even in some of their lesser movies, Pixar still keeps the bar set high with regards to their visual aesthetic.  The movie looks just as beautiful on the big screen as say Toy Story 4 (2019) or Incredibles 2 (2018).  I especially like how it maintains this purplish hue throughout, which reinforces the sort of neon based color palette of a fantasy world that we probably most associate with the 1980’s, which was a decade where fantasy films flourished.  At the same time, like most Pixar movies, it’s the background details that will likely catch people’s eye while watching the movie, especially with all the Easter eggs and sight gags that are littered throughout.  A lot of it is subtle, and does disappear into the background, much in the same way you forget about the setting in an episode of The Flintstones, but it’s still effectively realized.  I especially like how much character is brought into all of these fantasy elements as well.  The beat up van that Barley drives, affectionately named Guinevere, is a perfect example of the subtle ways that the filmmakers imagined this contemporary style fantasy world.  On the outside, Guinevere has the appearance of a typical 80’s era van, complete with an airbrushed piece of art on it’s side, but inside it’s been made to look like a miniature viking hall, complete with wooden siding on the walls, and makeshift shields and tapestries hung throughout, like a roleplay obsessed person would add to their personal space.  Guinevere almost becomes a character itself, and whose sendoff in the movie is one of the absolute funniest moments.  It’s another example of the incredible animation that has always been the thing that has set Pixar apart, and continues to remain strong as shown in the beautiful work displayed in Onward.

It’s hard to make a fair assessment of where Onward places within the entire Pixar canon.  If it were made by a different studio, Onward would be a revelation and a new gold standard for quality.  But because this is Pixar we are talking about, a studio that has consistently performed at an incredibly high standard for 25 solid years, Onward has to face a higher bit of scrutiny.  And as a result, it does suffer a bit in comparison, especially when it comes to how effectively it plays out the tried and true Pixar formula.  While still incredibly fun and engaging, I did feel that it lacked that little bit of extra pathos that could send it into all-time territory for the studio.  It’s character journey just feels a bit more minor in the long run compared to similar plots found in Coco and Up.  Also the grounded aspect of it’s story does feel like it’s shackling the world building, which could have gone a little bit farther.  Even the non-Pixar animation classic from parent company Disney, the amazing Zootopia (2016), managed to fully flesh out it’s world and maintain a compelling narrative in the same amount of time that Onward had.  Even still, the movie is delightful romp through a beautifully realized world, even if that world is a bit smaller than you might expect.  It particularly gives us some fantastic characters worth rooting for, with a voice cast that is perfectly matched together, and their story is engaging enough to follow, with even some surprising twists and turns by the end.  Honestly, you’ll probably get a lot out of this movie just hearing Chris Pratt and Tom Holland working off each other, making you wish that this kind of pair may one day happen again (get on that Spider-Man/ Guardians crossover now Marvel).  In many ways, I’d put Onward somewhere in the center of Marvel’s incredible body of work, slightly leaning towards the upper half.  And considering how very few Pixar movies are actually considered bad, that’s saying something very positive about Onward.  It’s not going to become the newest high point of Pixar’s body of work, but it’s still a great representation of the fact that their formula is still going strong.  With a passionate enough story, incredibly likable characters, and an imaginative world, this is one movie that will no doubt leave it’s viewers enchanted.

Rating: 8/10

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Review

We come to the end of the road now.  Back in 1977, when George Lucas was completing his big gamble on a throwback to the old sci-fi serials of his youth, I’m sure that he never thought for once that his film would spark an ongoing story that has lasted over 40 years now.  He just wanted to make the kind of movie that he wanted to see on the big screen, and boy did it succeed.  I’m sure he had visions of a grander narrative, which he would later draw upon in future films, but if it was his one and only shot, he certainly made the most of it.  By the time his original trilogy capper, Return of the Jedi (1983), released into theaters, Lucas had already changed cinema forever.  Star Wars was such a monumental thing for the culture that it almost became more than a movie franchise; it became something of a religion.  Taking fandom to newer heights than ever before, Star Wars has been almost inescapable in our culture for the last 42 years.  And with that high level of fandom, you also have high standards that come with it.  George Lucas learned that the hard way when he returned to the franchise with a prequel trilogy at the turn of the century.  While the movies do have their defenders, the response to his new trilogy was decidedly negative, and that’s probably because the bar had been set too high by the original trilogy.  Though Lucas was still telling the story that he had imagined, audiences were expecting something very different; something more adventurous and less introspective.  Despite the mixed results, Lucas was content where he left the story.  Cut to 2012 and the shocking news broke that Lucas had sold off the rights to his empire to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion.  And the even more amazing news came soon after that Disney hadn’t just bought Lucasfilm in order to play stewards to the already existing films.  They were going t carry the story even further than Lucas had gone before with a whole new trilogy, plus many more spinoffs.

Thus, we got a new trilogy that extends the story past the original six episodes made by George Lucas.  The entire enterprise launched with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in 2015.  Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, Awakens hit exactly the right notes for audiences; appealing to that sweet nostalgia spot in every fans heart while at the same time hinting at even bigger things to come.  It rode that goodwill to record breaking box office, with a domestic haul that still is unbeaten today; even bigger than worldwide champ Avengers: Endgame (2019).  That impressive debut even extended into the following year, carrying the spinoff film Rogue One (2016) to an impressive box office tally.  But things went differently with the film that came next.  The second film in the trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) would turn out to be the most divisive movie in the series since the prequels.  Director and Writer Rian Johnson created a Star Wars movie that challenged many tropes and undercut all the expected plot threads that had been set up in the more nostalgia heavy Force Awakens.  To some fans, this was a welcome change, because it showed that Disney and Lucasfilm were willing to shake things up in order take Star Wars in a variety of different directions.  But, for a lot of fans, they viewed this as a betrayal, and were extremely vocal about their displeasure.  The Last Jedi unfortunately exposed a toxic element that existed within the Star Wars fandom, with some people going as far as to harass members of the cast and crew of the film, which caused some of them to leave social media all together.  As it stands, Star Wars fandom is at it’s most fracutured point, with people either loving or hating the direction that the series has gone in; with little room in between.  That is the environment that Star Wars now finds itself in as it concludes this new, sequel trilogy with what is supposed to be the final chapter in the “Skywalker Saga.”  Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of weight on it’s shoulders, having to wrap up this long running series while at the same time dealing with a fan base that is in a broken state.  Is it the new hope that can bring balance to the force, or will it only divide the worlds even further apart?

The Rise of Skywalker jumps ahead from the events of The Last Jedi.  The rebel alliance is on it’s last legs after their last stand against the First Order.  But into the fray comes an even more sinister force.  A mysterious message is sent out into the galaxy by the long thought dead Emporer Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).  First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who sees Palpatine as a threat to his control of power, hunts down the Emporer’s location.  It soon brings him to a hidden home planet of the Sith order named Exogol, where he learns that Palpatine has been quietly building up his forces over the last several decades; creating a Star Destroyer fleet with the same power of a thousand Death Stars.  Palpatine extends his assistance to the Ren and the First Order under the single condition, that they bring the girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) to him.  Meanwhile, on a new Rebel base, Rey continues her Jedi training under the guidance of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).  Despite her best efforts, Rey still struggles to overcome her doubts, and the link between her and Kylo Ren still remains, with him still appealing for her to join the dark side.  At the same time, the rebel forces have received information from a spy within the First Order of the deal that has been struck with Palpatine, delivered to them by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega).  With Rey’s help, informed by her readings from the Jedi texts, they learn of a possible way to reach the hidden world of Exogol, using what is called a Sith Wayfinder.  Joined by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Rey, Poe and Finn take the Millennium Falcon to a variety of new worlds in search of the Wayfinder.  Along the way they receive help from new allies, including an old flame of Poe’s, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and the always resourceful Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  All the while, Ren continues to challenge Rey, pushing her to confront elements of her past that she wishes to forget, especially the ones that make her doubt who she really is.  The only question remains, can Rey find the power within herself to comabt Ren’s temptations and face Palpatine head on in order to save the Rebels and the galaxy as a whole?

In many ways, I have to respect the filmmakers and cast for undertaking the enormous burden that this movie must have been.  Facing more scrutiny than any other Star Wars production before, this movie not only had to smooth over the rift that was created by The Last Jedi, but it also has to function as both an ending for not just this new trilogy, but the entire nine movie arc that has been dubbed the Skywalker Saga; which by the way extends back 42 years now.  That is a lot of pressure no matter who you are.  The duties of this undertaking were originally going to go to director Colin Treverrow, who successfully relaunched the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World (2015).  However, creative differences led to his removal from the project, which led to J. J. Abrams returning to the directors chair.  And it’s that shake-up behind the scenes that more than likely affected the outcome of this film.  The Rise of Skywalker could not have been produced at a worse time for Lucasfilm.  With The Last Jedi dividing audiences as much as it did, and the spinoff film Solo (2018) underperforming at the box office under that same cloud, it suddenly led to a lot of second guessing at Lucasfilm and parent company Disney.  Projects in the pipeline were put on hold, creative teams like Lord & Miller and Benioff & Weiss were let go, and a complete shift in priorities began to take place.  And all of that chaos is apparent in the final result of The Rise of Skywalker.  It is by far the messiest and least focused film in the new trilogy, which sadly makes it the least effective film as well.  I should note though, it’s not a terrible movie; just a disappointing one.  For a movie like this to cross into the bad movie territory, it has to completely underwhelm and feel like an insult to the audience’s sensibilities.  That’s why I have far more disdain for a movie like the recent Lion King remake, because that movie was purely just a copy and paste effort.  With Rise of Skywalker, even though there are a lot of problems with it and plenty of questionable choices, I still see the effort that was put into it by the cast and crew, which at least makes it occasionally work in spite of itself.

So, what exactly is the problem with the movie.  Well, it’s clear from the get go that the shuffling around of creative forces behind the scenes led to a story that doesn’t make much sense.  With a screenplay by Abrams and Oscar winner Chris Terrio (Argo), the movie almost feels like a course correction after The Last Jedi.  And sadly, that heel turn makes the entire trilogy look like it was made without a clear vision.  It’s a trilogy at odds with itself, and it unfortunately undermines the narrative arcs that the different characters have been going through.  Not only that, but The Rise of Skywalker leaves absolutely no time to settle itself into a cohesive whole.  It moves at a break neck speed, fitting in a trilogy’s worth of story into a short 2 1/2 hour runtime.  This is unfortunate for a trilogy that up to now was very well paced and character driven.  This is one of the rare cases where a longer, three hour run time might have given the movie a better chance.  Instead, we get force fed (no pun intended) this story, which feels very un-Star Wars.  The most glaring example of this is the way that it introduces Emporer Palpatine into the narrative.  There is no mystery shrouding his existence; no explanation given as to how he managed to survive his fate at the end of Return of the Jedi.  He’s just there now, and we have to swallow that information immediately.  It not only robs any amount of impact his character might have had on the story, but it also undermines the threat that has been built up in the previous two films with Kylo Ren and the First Order.  I am also disappointed that the movie almost seems like a dismissal of the story ideas brought forth by The Last Jedi, almost like it’s a concession to all those toxic fans that threw a tantrum because of that last movie.  I for one loved the chances that The Last Jedi took, and the fact that Rise of Skywalker just retcons it all, especially with character development, just feels insulting to all of us who passionately defended those changes.  There’s no hard lessons learned, no surprising paths take; this movie is just the parent giving the child a toy in order to make them stop crying, no matter how undeserved it is.

Now, despite my issues that I’ve stated above, I didn’t hate Rise of Skywalker; nor did I really dislike it.  I would gladly take this film over the prequel trilogy any day, with maybe the exception of the last half of Revenge of the Sith (2005).  One thing this movie definitely has over the prequels is that the performances are still top notch.  Daisy Ridley in particular owns this movie, giving Rey the right amount of complexity to see her arc through to the end.  Though there are some questionable choices made about the direction of her character throughout the movie, Ridley never lets us down in her performance and she greatly helps to carry the movie on her shoulders.  I love the fact that she has become a role model to many young fans of Star Wars, and thankfully nothing in this movie will change people’s view of her character.  She remains a badass right to the end.  The same complexity also is thankfully maintained with Kylo Ren.  Adam Driver’s performance may even be the best throughout the entire trilogy, and he thankfully also remains consistent here.  Even as his character arc takes some turns, it still is believably reached and that is all thanks to the actor.  I selected both Rey and Kylo Ren as two of the best Heroes and Villains in my decade top ten lists here and here,  and nothing in this movie diminishes that.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets sidelined for most of the movie, including Poe and Finn, who are reduced to tag alongs for Rey.  One thing I do give the movie praise for is how well they dealt with closure for Leia.  With Carrie Fisher’s all too sudden passing in 2016, the movie was left without a key player in it’s final chapter, as The Last Jedi surprisingly left her alive in the end.  Utilizing unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams remarkably fits Leia into this story in a way that feels organic and respectful, giving this very important character a graceful sendoff that she absolutely deserves.  And even though he is awkwardly shoehorned into this trilogy, Ian McDiarmid does still own every scene he’s in, adequately chewing the scenary as he’s done many times before in this series, going all the way back to Jedi.  So, even with the story’s shortcomings, the cast in this film is by no means slouching it in their final go around in this series.

The movie, while not as eye-catching as the beautifully shot  The Last Jedi, still has moments of visual splendor.  There are plenty of breath-taking shots that still give the movie that epic grandeur that the series is known for.  Even something that feels very out of place, like the Sith Temple on Exogol, which has this H. R. Geiger influnence to it, still manages to stick distinctly in your mind.  I appreciate the fact that Disney’s Star Wars movies don’t just try to reuse the same planets over and over again, which the prequels did a lot.  They really want to show the expanse of the galaxy, and give us new worlds with every film.  There are some annoying echoes of the past (seriously, another desert planet), but the movie does go out of it’s way to show you things that you’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie.  Even returning to a familiar location like the Death Star keeps to this philosophy, because here we see the once mighty war machine in complete ruin, decaying against the mighty ocean waves like an astonomically enormous ship wreck.  The movie is visually on par with it’s predecessors, but it again is undermined by the lack of focus in the story.  Not enough time is ever devoted to fully exploring these places.  I should also point out the very important factor of John Williams, who is scoring a Star Wars film for what is likely the very last time.  It’s an impressive achievement that the legendary composer was able to score 9 different films over 42 years, helping to maintain a continuity throughout.  Though his work here may not be the most memorable of the series, it still feels great to hear new soundscapes still come from the man who gave Star Wars it’s original epic grandiosity.  He’s really the main reason why we call Star Wars a space opera, because of the operatic quality of his music.  It’s also why even when elements of this movie disappoint on a story level, it makes it hard to say you hate the movie, because there is still a lot to love on a technical standpoint.

This year in particular was going to be a standout one for Star Wars, which is really saying something.  Not only did we get the conclusion to this trilogy, but Disney launched it’s largest theme park expansion ever with a new Star Wars based land called Galaxy’s Edge, which despite some naysayers on the internet, has been glowingly received by visitors from across the world.  In addtion, Disney lanched their much anticipated streaming platform Disney+, with the Star Wars branded series The Mandalorian as a day one launch title, which has gone on to become an instant hit with fans across the Star Wars spectrum.  So, it’s just so disappointing that Rise of Skywalker ends up being so divisive at a time when it looked like the fandom was finally starting to heal and come back together.  The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst Star Wars movie ever made, but it certainly is the most problematic.  It just seems like the movie was rushed through, without much thought into how it should tie up all the loose ends of the series we’ve been following along with for so long.  At the point where Disney and Lucasfilm saw issues beginning to form during the making of this movie, and with their long term plans as a whole, they should have stepped things back and perhaps delay The Rise of Skywalker for maybe a year in order to smooth things out.  But, sadly, it was full steam ahead and nothing was going to deter them from that deadline, and it unfortunately made the movie suffer as a result.  Though far from the worst Star Wars movie, it is by far the least successful finale to any of the trilogies.  Revenge of the Sith fixed many of the problems of it’s predecessors, and though Return of the Jedi was a disappointment in comparsion to A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it still managed to maintain that high quality level of storytelling; especially in those moments with Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. For The Rise of Skywalker, everything is just a mixed bag. Initially when I left the theater, I came away with some positive feeling. There are certainly moments in the movie that made me genuinely happy. But the further away from it I get, the more the flaws become more apparent. So, my feelings on the movie are not anger or disgust. The movie is not a disaster; just a disappointment. There could have been so much more to this ending than what we got, especially given the enormous legacy behind it. Instead, we get something of a compromise, and that in of itself is a disappointment. Even still, I’m thankful for the journey it took us on, and my hope is that Star Wars leaves this saga behind and truly expands out into the far reaches of the galaxy; perhaps fulfilling its real potential. Sad to see the Skywalker saga end in the way it did, but it was a fun ride nonetheless. May the Force be with it.

Rating: 7/10

Frozen II – Review

It’s interesting to think what this era in Disney Animation will be called.  Disney’s Golden Age is often what they called the post-WWII years of the 1950’s, when the Disney company enjoyed a string of hits that included Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Then came the Renaissance, which was heralded by release of The Little Mermaid (1989), and continued on with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).  But what all these key eras for Disney have in common is that they all came after years of both creative and economic downturns.  That’s been Disney’s key characteristic through the years, which is their resiliency, as they seem to always find a way to put themselves back on top no matter what the storm.  Disney Animation during the 2000’s is a period of time that could be described as transitional.  After the heyday of the Renaissance, Disney’s traditional animation style was just not carrying it’s weight like it used to, which was mainly due to the rise of computer animation from their soon to be sister company, Pixar.  As CGI rose, hand drawn animation fell, and Disney’s in house studio was just able to compete.  The box office failure of costly films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002) only hastened the decline, and after the rather mediocre premiere of the last hand drawn film in the pipeline, 2004’s Home on the Range, Disney decided to adjust to the times and end their traditional animation studio for good.  One last attempt was made to bring it back with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, despite decent box office, it still wasn’t enough to move the needle back.  Disney still struggled at first to meet the challenge of this new CGI animated world, with forgettable films like Chicken Little (2005) and Bolt (2008) doing little to boost their stock, but two back to back successes with Tangled (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) helped to shape things for the better.  And then came the movie that changed everything and pushed Disney back on top.

Frozen (2013) was undoubtedly a phenomenon the likes that Disney hadn’t seen since The Lion King nearly 20 years prior.  Bolstered no doubt by it’s wintery setting coinciding with a holiday season release, Frozen would continue to remain atop the box office all the way into the new year, even against heavy competition like The Hobbit.  In the end, it became the highest grossing animated film of all time worldwide, as well as the first animated film to enter the billion dollar club.  But, it wasn’t the seasonal aspect itself that made the movie a hit.  Loosely based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen marked a triumphant return for Disney to the genre that had originally put them on the map.  The central characters of Anna and Elsa were immediately catapulted into the pantheon of popular Disney Princesses, and their story of unbroken sisterhood was embraced by audiences of all ages.  The same goes for all the characters as well, with the magical snowman Olaf becoming a particular favorite for small children.  And then of course there was the songs.  Written by the husband and wife duo of Robert and Kristen Lopez of Broadway fame (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), the songs from Frozen became instant standards, and were sung by nearly everyone and everywhere.  Even Ryan Reynolds sang a bit of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” in Deadpool 2 (2018).  And of course there was “Let it Go,” which became one of the most omnipresent songs in recent memory.  With the success that Disney enjoyed from the release of Frozen, they managed to bring their studio back to dominance, with subsequent hits like Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016) standing strong on it’s shoulders.  So, it makes sense that Disney would fast track a sequel to their biggest hit in decades.  Frozen II arrives this week 6 years after the original and the question remains can it recapture the magic that helped to make the original a huge success, or are we starting to see the ice begin to thaw?

Frozen II picks up not long after the events of the first movie.  Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) have reestablished their long dormant kingdom into a open society, and prosperity has flourished once again.  But, Elsa has been disturbed by a siren call that only she can hear and she wishes to find out where it is coming from.  She believes that it has a connection to the lullaby that her mother, Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), had sung to her and her sister before she was gone.  The lullaby spoke of an Enchanted Forest beyond the borders of their kingdom, Arendelle, and a mysterious ancient river in the far North.  Accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the sisters head north to find answers.  Once at the border, they find the Enchanted Forest blocked off by an impenetrable wall of mist.  Elsa’s snow and frost powers enable them entry past the mist wall, but leaves them no way out.  Once inside the forest, they are besieged by elemental spirits of wind, fire, earth and water, which Elsa somehow manages to tame.  This gets the attention of Northuldra tribe people, who have been stuck within the forest since the they fought against the kingdom of Arendelle, along with soldiers of the Arendellian army, led by Captain Mattias (Sterling K. Brown).  Elsa, in an attempt to broker peace between their lands, resolves to find answers and a way to break the curse that has closed of the forest from the world.  Meanwhile, Kristoff hopes to find the right time to pop the question to Anna, who is increasingly distracted with having to keep her sister safe.  But, eventually, they all end up finding that some separation will ultimately be needed in order to restore order to their kingdom.  And as they delve deeper into the mystery of their past, especially with regards to what happened to their parents long ago, they may find that the truth is harsher than fiction.

There is no doubt that Frozen II will become a box office hit right out of the gate.  It’s predecessor broke so many records, and the Disney studio has not faltered in the years since, so right out of the gate this movie is going to make a mint no matter what anyone thinks of it.  But can it sustain that, and will it deserve what it gets.  If you’ve been reading my blog since it’s first year online back in 2013, you’ll know that I reviewed the original Frozen (found here) and had something of a lukewarm response to it.  I didn’t dislike the movie by any means, but I also wasn’t as enthusiastic about it either.  It may have to do with my very high standard by which I judge Disney movies by, but I still stand by my view of Frozen.  It’s serviceable, but nowhere near an all time great.  I’ve honestly found the success it enjoyed more fascinating than the movie itself, and I am happy that it propelled this new era of Disney Animation.  But, did things improve for the sequel?  Well, I’m sad to say that not only did it not improve on the original Frozen, but it even took a step backwards for me.  I was not at all satisfied with this second go around with the world of Frozen, finding myself mostly bored and uninterested in what was going on.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about it; it’s just that the movie feels unnecessary.  I’m always of the belief that a sequel must build upon what had come before it, and that it has to justify it’s existence.  The story has to have somewhere to go, and more importantly raise the stakes.  Frozen II doesn’t do that; it just changes location and tries to fill in the gaps left by the original.  That doesn’t make for an interesting movie.  It also makes the movie feel smaller, which is definitely not what you want your sequel to be.

It all boils down to weakness in the story itself.  The original Frozen had an engaging story about persevering through isolation of one’s own making.  As stated in the film, “love can thaw the coldest heart,” and that was admittedly illustrated well through Elsa’s journey of accepting that she doesn’t have to view her powers as a curse but rather as a gift, which undoes years of heartbreak and fear that she has had to grow up with.  Though the movie was unevenly structured, it nevertheless delivered in making Elsa and Anna’s transformations satisfying throughout the course of the story, which in turn drove the narrative along.  But sadly, Frozen II moves forward with it’s most important conflict already resolved.  The characters have all gone through their major transformations, and sadly don’t grow beyond that.  It would help if there was a more fleshed out cast to give more character development to, or more world building beyond what we’ve seen so far, but no.  Frozen II decides to keep things close to home and without much in the way of external threats.  The movie seems to think that we need to know where Elsa got her powers from and where the sisters’ mother and father were headed originally.  I hate to say it, but the mystery isn’t really that interesting and the ultimate conclusion even less so.  And this is the bulk of the movie.  Also, the subtlety of the original film’s message is muddled here in clunky foreshadowing and on-the-nose symbolism.  Oh, do you think that ominous dam might have some symbolic importance for the story?  Hmmm?  There is so much in the movie that feels like a wasted opportunity.  The Northuldra people are extremely underdeveloped, and could have offered an interesting new angle for the story to take.  A lack of an antagonistic threat is also disappointing.  I know Hans was far from a classic Disney villain, but at least he served a purpose.  Instead, little is risked and even less is earned over the course of the movie.

It seems strange that a sub-par effort comes from the exact same team that made the original.  Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck may not have reinvented the wheel with the original Frozen, but they do deserve credit for hitting the bulls-eye when it comes to delivering for a mass audience, and for reinvigorating the Disney brand.  Jennifer Lee has even ridden the success of Frozen towards earning the top job at Disney Animation, becoming the studio head after the departure of John Lasseter, which she certainly is well qualified for.  But, even people with experience under their belt can misfire.  I will say that even though the movie is lacking story-wise, it is still beautifully animated.  There was nothing within the movie that looked lackluster on the animation side, especially when it comes to the environments.  I was really struck by how good the textures looked in this movie, whether it was the foliage within the Enchanted Forest, or the tiny crystals in Elsa’s dress; it all looked beautiful.  There was also some really neat animation used on the elemental spirits, especially with a horse made entirely out of water.  I’m sure that took some expert programming to do in the software used to animate this movie.  The character animation likewise stands on solid ground, with a wide range of emotion put into the faces of Anna, Elsa, and the others.  I’m sure that the animators also had a lot of fun finding new ways to contort Olaf’s sectional body into many different shapes.  At the same time, a lot of this is also stuff we’ve seen before.  Characters are animated with care, but are ultimately the same.  I’m not seeing anything groundbreaking in this film, except maybe with the elemental characters.  The animation fulfills it’s role here, and little else.

The returning voice cast also doesn’t disappoint, and for the most part are what helps to salvage an otherwise disappointing film.  I’m still impressed with Idina Menzel’s vocal range, and I still find Elsa to be the series’ most shining light.  Kristen Bell’s Anna still grates on me a little bit, but she is thankfully a bit more mature and subdued this time around.  Josh Gad’s Olaf may be the movie’s best asset however, as he gets most of the best lines in this movie, especially with the frankness of some of his observations.  There’s a funny bit where he recounts the plot of the first movie in his own way.  Sadly, none of the new characters leave an impression.  I mentioned earlier the lack of development for the Northuldran people, who could have been a fascinating asset had their culture been explored further.  I also am confused why the character of Captain Mattias exists at all, because he adds so little to the plot, and why cast a big star like Sterling K. Brown in the part.  He does a fine job, but the character is largely inconsequential.  The songs are a mixed bag too.  Unfortunately none are as memorable as those in the previous movie, which may be a blessing to some.  As much as people got sick of “Let it Go,” it’s still undeniably a great song.  Only one song in this movie comes close to rising to that high bar called “Into the Unknown,” and no big surprise, it’s an Elsa song.  But even still, it doesn’t carry the same weight, and I think that’s mostly a byproduct of the story itself being so weightless.  Some of the songs even feel awkwardly shoehorned in, like they were written before the story itself was fully formed, and the filmmakers had to work around them.  There are some cute things about them, like Kristoff getting to do a riff on 80’s rock love ballads, but it’s more a testament to the professionalism of the Lopez’s as songwriters.  A more robust story would have maybe turned these songs into classics, as the original did with tunes like “Love is an Open Door” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, but sadly this is a soundtrack that is likely going to fall way short of it’s award-winning predecessor.

Watching how Frozen II falls short of capturing of the mark set by the original Frozen makes me think very much with how they contrast against a similarly themed film series from a rival studio, and not in a good way.  Dreamworks Animation managed to create one of their most popular and critically acclaimed films with How to Train Your Dragon, which like Frozen, took inspiration from Norse culture and folklore to tell it’s story.  However, what Dragon also did was further expand it’s world in it’s subsequent sequels, with each adding new places, characters, and layers upon which they could further explore.  They also raised the stakes significantly, and dare I say, took very creative risks as well; including killing off a character or two, and maybe even showing more character flaws that deepen their characters’ stories as they go along.  Frozen II follows it’s enormously successful predecessor by playing it safe, and that’s to it’s detriment.  I wanted there to be more to the story of Elsa and Anna than just a journey into the past.  These characters don’t need to find clues toward discovering where they came from, because they already know who they are; the original movie did an effective job of showing us that.  What Frozen II needed was a more powerful test, both with Elsa’s further expanding powers and also with the family bond that ties them all together.  There is no conflict with any of them, and you all know they are going to return safely home by the end, and that’s the problem.  I’m sorry to contrast it with How to Train Your Dragon, but that series shows a much better example of how to grow your story over multiple films.  Even  by Disney sequel standards, Frozen II felt like a whole bunch of unnecessary filler.  If there are any further adventures of Anna and Elsa, which is heavily implied that there might by the end, they better have a more interesting story to tell.  Maybe a story developed by a different team next time might give the series a push in the right direction next time.  In the meanwhile, despite pretty animation and a couple nice songs, Frozen II sadly falls way short and is probably Disney’s weakest film in a long while.  Is it going to break Disney’s win streak? Not a chance, but it will never stand among the all time greats, and even though it pains me as a life long Disney fan, it’s best to forget this one and let it go.

Rating: 6/10

The Irishman – Review

Netflix has made huge in roads over the last couple years to not only be the top dog in streaming content straight to the consumer, but to also be recognized as a legitimate production studio of it’s own.  As more and more of the established Hollywood movie studio giants are pulling out of their licensing deals with Netflix in order to launch platforms of their own, Netflix has become more and more reliant on their own exclusive content to help maintain their dominance in the market.  It has been a risky and expensive plan for Netflix, with the streaming giant spending billions of dollars already just on production, but it seems to have been working so far.  Not only did Netflix meet their new subscriber expectations within the last quarter, it actually surpassed them, which is good news for their bottom line as their toughest competitions are about to launch within the next week and months ahead.  A large part of this is the fact that they have put their money behind films and television shows that otherwise would not have found a home in the theatrical market, and in turn it has sparked more interest in the home viewership of Netflix’s audience.  Filmmakers with bolder, less mainstream visions who have had their outside the box projects rejected by the mainstream studio system have found Netflix to be a more welcoming environment, as there is less pressure on this platform to submit to box office appeal.  That’s why you are seeing so many filmmakers flocking to Netflix, which has benefited the streaming giant greatly.  With Netflix benefiting from this influx of top tier talent, their focus lately has been to break through the stigma home entertainment within the industry and be fully acknowledged as a worthy platform for cinema on par with the rest of the business, especially when it comes in awards form.  And after being denied last year with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) losing out in the Best Picture race, Netflix is more determined than ever to push forward again for that elusive prize.

In walks living legend Martin Scorsese, unarguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Scorsese has been a fixture within the industry for nearly half a century, making some of the greatest movies ever made.  So, when he suddenly announces that his next feature, The Irishman, would be a Netflix exclusive production, people are going to take notice.  Scorsese has been circling Irishman for a long time, working off and on for the better part of more than a decade.  It wasn’t until Netflix stepped in that the project finally found it’s footing, and Scorsese was finally able to see this dream project to completion.  Chronicling the life of Frank Sheeran, the notorious mob hitman and bodyguard/confidant of legendary Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, The Irishman bears many similarities to previous mob movies that Scorsese has had his hands on over the years; particularly Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  Given how Scorsese and his longtime collaborators, notably actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, are all entering old age, this new film project no doubt feels like a swan song for this particular team, and I’m sure that’s what made it so appealing to Netflix.  The endeavor, however, was not going to be a quick and easy one.  Netflix reportedly spent close to $160 million dollars on this production, which is their most expensive single expenditure to date on a project; and you’ve got to remember, Netflix doesn’t rely on box office profits to earn that money back.  This is a bold risk to take for Netflix, but when the trade off is that you are the exclusive home to the last mafia movie made by the master of that genre, it may be the best possible decision in the long run.  No doubt Scorsese agreed to the deal because he knew that Netflix would allow him to make the movie that he wanted to make, without the interference that he normally would’ve received from a major studio.  The only question is, does The Irishman manage to live up to the incredible legacy of the master director’s previous work and was it worthwhile for Netflix to make a such a move in the first place.

It should be noted that though the movie features true events and real life historical figures, it is at the same time a work of speculative fiction.  The real life Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro in the film) went to his grave having never spoken out about his true involvement in the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  The movie is framed through an imagined confession from Sheeran as he addresses the audience directly from the comforts of his retirement home; telling the story his way, which he was never able to do in real life.  The movie does chronicle the things that we do know are true about Sheeran, and uses his point of view as a way of dramatizing the stuff we don’t quite know for sure in a belivable way.  We learn how he got involved with the Mafia in the first place, after a chance encounter with a well connected member named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) puts him in their good graces.  After helping them with a few scams, Frank is given a new assignment by the local don, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), to take advantage of his other set of skills; cold-blooded murder.  Pretty soon, Frank earns the reputation as the most reliable hitman in the mafia.  After a while, Frank’s old friend Russell hooks up another job for him; a gig working as the bodyguard for their associate, Jimmy Hoffa, the most powerful union boss in America.  Sheeran accepts and over time he and Hoffa form a close bond.  Sheeran remains by Hoffa’s side over the course of many historical events and through some very turbulent rivalries as well, including with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston).  But a dispute over union leadership with another mafia connected rival named Anthony “ton Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) suddenly puts Hoffa in conflict with the Mafia dons, who are worried that the temperamental politico will turn “rat” and sell them out to the government.  As a result, Sheeran becomes torn between the two alliances that have meant so much to him and made him who he is.  Does he betray a friend to appease the powers that put him where he is, or does he stand up against the might of the American Mafia?

The Irishman, like all Netflix productions, is intended to be available to stream exclusively on their platform.  However, in order to qualify for the Awards contention, it must screen for a minimum of three weeks in theaters within the crucial media centers of Los Angeles and New York City.  So, Netflix agreed to a limited theatrical run for The Irishman in anticipation of it’s late November release on it’s channel in order to meet that crucial awards criteria, as well as a limited nationwide roll-out.  Even still, major chains have refused to screen the film, objecting to Netflix’s small window before it’s streaming debut, so most markets will not be able to have the movie available on the big screen.  Thankfully, I live in one of those key markets that does have the movie available to watch on the big screen.  In fact, I was able to watch the movie in the first ever theater owned outright by Netflix themselves; the legendary Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood.  Seeing any movie in a theater as legendary, and nearly 100 year old, as the Egyptian is a treat, but seeing one as exclusive as Netflix’s own Scorsese feature is even more appetizing.  And I can tell you that this is a movie that absolutely must be seen on a big screen while you still can; if you can.  Scorsese is a filmmaker at the absolute peak of his craft, and every time he steps behind the camera, you know that you’re going to see something special.  After taking on two wildly different projects in the last decade with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016), it’s interesting to see him return to familiar ground with The Irishman, which feels like the continuation of his previous work.  In a strange way, The Irishman almost feels like the finale of a trilogy, working as a spiritual successor to both Goodfellas and Casino; probably because of the presence of DeNiro and Pesci.  And as far as trilogy cappers go, this is definitely Scorsese’s Return of the King, because everything we love about those other mafia movies is taken to their absolute zenith with The Irishman.

If you’re a fan of Scorsese’s other mafia movies, you’ll find a lot to love with The Irishman.  The movie carries over the same dark sense of humor, the same shocking bursts of violence, and the same uncompromising portrayals of humanity found in those other films.  Scorsese is definitely in familiar territory here, but at the same time, he’s not just resting on his laurels.  He spends the movie’s very lengthy run time building up a spectacular narrative that takes us deep into this world, with a great amount of care devoted to making us care about these characters.  All the while, Scorsese digs into all the tricks he’s learned over his long career and even surprises us with a few new ones he’s picked up along the way.  One of them includes some of the most beautifully shot slow motion that I’ve ever seen used in a movie; which is a technique that he picked up recently  from Wolf of Wall Street.  I should also note just how beautifully edited this movie is; a testament to the artistry that Socrsese’s longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, brings to every movie that she works with him on.  Here, she goes above and beyond and each scene movies so gracefully from one shot to the next that it shows just how amazing she is at what she does.  These two legends have made so many classic films together, and The Irishman just brings out the best in both of them.  Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, working with Scorsese for the third straight time, also delivers some beautiful shots in this movie as well, picking up the mantle left by previous Scorsese cameramen like Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson perfectly.  It’s his work in particular that I’m worried might lose it’s impact through streaming at home, as it demands a bigger screen to be fully appreciated.

What I’m sure most people are going to respond to the most with this movie is the all star cast, which almost reads like a list of the Martin Scorsese All-Stars.  In particular, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci sharing the screen once again is going to be one of the most talked about stories about this film for a long time.  Though Scorsese had no problem securing the still very active DeNiro into the role of Frank Sheeran, continuing their decades long partnership, he apparently had to do a lot of coaxing in order to get Pesci to say yes.  Joe Pesci has been fully retired for several years, and was very reluctant to step back in front of a camera again.  But, eventually he agreed to the offer, probably after Scorsese promised that this was going to be their final go around together, and it’s a blessing to see Pesci back in form in this movie.  Many of the movie’s best scenes are the ones shared by DeNiro and Pesci, as you can feel their long standing, real life friendship coming through in their performances.  Pesci in particular is a revelation here, as he is far more subdued than his past characters in Scorsese’s flicks.  Some viewers may be startled at first by the movie’s usage of the de-aging CGI effect to make both Pesci and DeNiro look younger in flashback scenes, but after a while you get used to them and the actors’ performances shine through.  The movie also features a stellar ensemble cast as well.  Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire will be happy to note to that many of that show’s cast, including Bobby Canavale and Stephen Graham to name a few, litter the film throughout.  But, if the movie had an MVP, it would be Al Pacino in the role of Jimmy Hoffa.  Surprisingly marking his debut in a Scorsese directed film, Pacino is fully unleashed in this movie, delivering a delightfully scene-chewing performance as the controversial figure.  If anything, Pacino will be this movie’s best shot at securing an Oscar come awards time next year.  Given the movie’s already top tier cast, it’s amazing just how much Pacino commands every scene he has in the film, and it’s any wonder why it took this long for him and Scorsese to finally cross paths.

For the most part, the movie uses it’s run time effectively.  The Irishman is long, even for a Scorsese movie, running at a staggering 209 minutes (or nearly three and a half hours).  But it doesn’t waste it’s epic length, devoting much of it’s run time to a rapid fire pace.  Even still, I would say that the movie’s one and only fault is the fact that when it enters it’s epilogue like final stretch, it does take it’s foot off the gas and slows to a crawl.  I notice that it happens pretty much after (SPOILER) Jimmy Hoffa is taken out of the picture.  While the movie doesn’t crash and burn afterwards, it is a bit disappointing that the final 30 minutes of the movie doesn’t have the same energy as the previous 3 hours.  Indeed the first 3/4 of the movie is some of the best time I have spent watching a movie in the theater this year.  The movie was this beautiful mixture of humor, shocking turns, and edge of your seat tension, so I was a little saddened to see the final stretch feel like such a slog.  It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.  More could have been made of the strained relationship between Frank Sheeran and his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin), but the movie only gives it a passing glance.  Perhaps it’s comparison that I make with Goodfellas and Casino that reflects badly on this film, because those movies ended on more critical notes.  The Irishman instead ends in a more contemplative tone, which may be truer to the character of Frank Sheeran, but it feels in conflict with the rest of the movie we had seen up to that point.  Even still, the movie, for as long as it is, is still a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience that represents everything we love about Scorsese and more.

It will be interesting to see where The Irishman‘s place will fall within the legacy of Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker.  I for one believe that it stands shoulder to shoulder with his now decades old mafia classics, and indeed the trilogy analogy does feel apt.  I can see this working as a the finale of a Scorsese triple feature with Goodfellas and Casino, since they are all very similar in tone and execution.  I for one am just amazed that even into his late 70’s that Scorsese still has a movie like this in him, and that he could execute it so effectively without losing a beat.  No doubt the free reign that Netflix gave him enabled him to make this movie the way he wanted to make it, and it just shows how great a filmmaker he continues to be as he makes good on that trust.  If anything, this movie is worth seeing just as the marking of an end of an era.  We may never see Scorsese create a Mafia movie ever again, and certainly not with all these same actors.  And if this is truly the end for this kind of movie, then it’s a very fitting end.  It’s certainly a treat to see that we got one more out of these guys, and that’s something that we should both cherish and praise Netflix for making it happen.  If anything, this has been the thing that really makes Netflix deserve a place in the pantheon of top Hollywood studios.  They are granting filmmakers the chance to experiment and work on projects that appeal to them personally, and by putting it out on their platform, it gives each of those projects the best chance of finding an audience.  I don’t know how The Irishman might have performed if given a traditional release, but there’s no doubt that it’s place within the legacy of the director is going to be one of high esteem.  If it’s playing on a big screen in your area, please take advantage and see it that way first.  But if not, then please show your support when it starts streaming on Netflix starting on November 27.  Either way you watch it, this will be a movie in the collective conversation for a long time, and proof that the future of film-making will indeed by influenced by the likes of Netflix and other streaming platforms.  It may be a turbulent change, but at least great movies like The Irishman are the result of it.

Rating: 9/10

Joker – Review

The last decade has given us a huge variety of movies about superheroes.  But, what we have yet to see is a movie about a supervillain.  Some have argued that Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) fits that criteria, as it primarily focuses on it’s central antagonist, Thanos, but at the same time it’s also an Avengers movie, meaning that it essentially is an ensemble where the villain gets a huge chunk of the screen time.  What hasn’t been seen yet, however, is a movie that puts the villain front and center, telling their story from their point of view.  It’s a tricky kind of story to pull off because you can run the risk of humanizing the villain too much to where they become sympathetic in the eyes of the audience.  There are plenty of villainous characters out there whose stories are rich enough to delve deeper into, especially in the realm of comic books.  DC Comics perhaps has assembled the most robust rogues gallery that we’ve ever seen in any medium, both cinematic and literary.  It’s no surprise that in their desire to compete with their rival Marvel on the big screen and tell stories that will garner them a bigger audience, they looked to one of their most iconic characters who just also so happens to be their most notorious villain; the clown prince of crime, Joker.  Joker has certainly left his mark on the silver screen, with cinematic iterations that almost try to one up each other in their increasingly dark takes.  Jack Nicholson’s performance in Batman (1989) was a beautiful balance of menace and humor, while Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) was so iconicly chilling that it won him a posthumous Oscar.  But as much as their versions stood out, they were only section of the grander tapestry of Batman mythos that their respective films were trying to portray.  What kind of movie do we get when a character as unfathomably evil as the Joker is pushed front and center in his own movie.

To do a movie about the Joker, setting the tone the right way has to be the most important factor.  There are so many ways to get this kind of story wrong.  Joker has evolved over time to become the most sinister and disturbing villain in the history of DC Comics; which has no doubt been helped by Nicholson and Ledger’s chilling performances.  If you take the wrong approach to a character like this, you run the risk of creating too much sympathy for the character and this can on occasion lead to an un-healthy self-reflection with the character for some in the audience.  It’s not a bad thing to be a fan of the character.  The Joker has been a popular villain for good reason, and he’s often one of the most widely cos-played characters in the entire DC canon, or for all comic books in general.  Joker fandom for many people is just good old fun, but there are those who unfortunately take things a bit too far.  The powerful imagery and personality of the Joker has sadly also been adopted by fringe segments of society who view the Joker as their patron saint.  These kinds of people can run as varied as anarchists, internet trolls, incels, the alt-right and just flat out terrorist thugs.  These groups in no way are endorsed or promoted by DC or it’s comic writers, but sadly the Joker has been turned into this political lightning rod because of real world villains using him as their inspiration.  The tragic shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 by gunman James Holmes brought nationwide attention to this problem, as Holmes tried to emulate the demented clown in his rampage.  The threat that this might happen again has brought controversy to DC’s recent attempt to dramatize an origin story for the Joker on the big screen.  Some theaters have beefed up security just in case, and the same theater in Aurora where the shooting took place has chosen not to screen it at all (which is understandable).  But, the question remains; is a Joker movie deserving of all this controversy?  Is he really that dangerous of a character, and ultimately, is a telling of his story justified in the end?

It must be noted that this is meant to be just a version of the Joker, and not any definitive take that will become canon for all time.  This is not the same Joker that Nicholson or Ledger played; it’s a Joker that exists solely for this specific kind of story.  The movie is about a down and out street performer named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who tries his hardest to earn a living in the hard neighborhoods of Gotham City.  Arthur suffers from a mental condition that causes him to uncontrollably laugh, which further isolates him from society, as people avoid him believing him to be a nutcase.  He lives with his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who remains emotionally distant even as he dotes on her.  Arthur tries his best to cope with the hardships of life, finding solace in comedy, which leads him to pursuing a life as a comedian, a move that is encouraged by his across the hall neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whom he has an attraction for.  Unfortunately, his laughing condition gets the best of him and ruins his first chance at becoming a stand-up.  At the same time, he looses his job and the mental health care he’s been receiving have been eliminated due to budget cuts.  On his way home one day, he is harassed by a group of drunken yuppie businessmen on a subway train.  They push him over the edge and he snaps, pulling a gun on them and murdering all three in cold blood.  The shocking act brings out a feeling inside Arthur, which he initially tries to repress.  At the same time, the poor people of Gotham respond to the crime favorably, because the victims were entitled employees of Wayne Enterprises, and they view Gotham’s favorite son and potential mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and the reason the city has left them all behind.  Meanwhile, Arthur’s bungled stand-up routine becomes fodder for a late night talk show hosted by a favorite performer of his, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and Arthur is given an invite to appear on his show.  With all the turmoil that Arthur goes through in days after, it leads him to shed off the person he was before and adopt the clown that he now views himself as, asking to go by the name Joker instead.

One thing that will be made clear very quickly while watching the movie is that this is not your typical comic book movie.  There really is nothing left of the tropes that we associate with the likes of Batman, Justice League or any other super hero movies found in this film. Instead, this movie takes it’s narrative and visual inspiration from the career of Martin Scorsese.  Two films in particular of Scorsese seemed to have been sourced as inspiration for this flick, which are Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983).  Both movies chronicle the dangerous mental slide of an obsessed individual on the fringes of society, and both were starring vehicles for Robert DeNiro.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DeNiro also appears in this movie as well, since I’m sure that the filmmakers wanted to draw that parallel.  Using the Scorsese guidebook is a bold choice to go with as a basis for portraying the rise of a comic book supervillain.  And to accurately portray the Scorsese style in this movie, you look have to look no further than the guy who made The Hangover (2008)? Umm, okay.   Actually to Todd Phillip’s credit, it’s clear that he did his homework as a student of the Scorsese style, because this is a fantastic recreation of a movie from this point of time in the legendary director’s career.  The visuals in particular are stunningly close to movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets (1973), with soft focus cinematography and a earthy color palette.  It looks unlike any other Super Hero movie we’ve ever seen, because this genre usually doesn’t play around in this kind of style, and it makes for a perfect match with the character himself.  The visual style, from the opening scene on, puts the audience in this feeling of unease, as the movie takes on this stark realistic hue.  And it provides a perfect juxtaposition with the flamboyance that the Joker represents.  On just the technical merits alone, this movie is superb, and a worthy homage to the Scorsese style as well.

But one thing that will be following the film around for some time is it’s controversy.  By giving the Joker such a profound and captivating origin, people are worried that it’ll cause only more people to sympathize and identify with him, which is what some people believe led to that tragic theater shooting in Colorado.  But, that’s in no way what this movie does at all.  It must be made clear; the Joker portrayed in this movie is no hero, nor an anti-hero.  He is a villain, period.  And I think that’s what make the movie so effective as a cinematic experience.  I should tell you this right now; Joker is not a feel good movie in any way.  It’s intended to make you feel disturbed and horrified.  What Todd Phillips does so well with his telling of this story is to hold up a mirror to society and make us feel ashamed for the ways we contribute, whether we know it or not, to the creations of monsters like the Joker.  Arthur’s decent into villainy is in no ways looked at as a triumph, but as a tragedy, as there are so many points where one direction in the right way could have steered him away from his fate.  But, because of our proclivity to ridicule people with strange conditions, ignore the plights of people in poorer classes and with mental illness, and feed into media frenzies that elevate the profile of mass murderers and serial killers, we bear some of the responsibility for making monsters like the Joker more common than they should.  Hell, the media’s obsession with a possible incident that might occur because of this movie kind of proves that point.  And the movie rightly never lets Arthur off the hook either.  The really effective part of the movie comes in the way it increasingly makes us feel uneasy as we continue to focus on Arthur’s story.  So much of the tension in the later half comes from not knowing exactly what he might do next.  It even makes us question whether or not we should be laughing at his antics later, which is honestly something that even previous versions of the Joker never attempted to ask before.  So, for anyone worried that this movie was going to be a rallying cry for all the anti-social pariahs out there, be rest assured that it is not, but rather an indictment of this kind of individual and the society that props him up for no good reason.

At the same time, because of the unforgiving nature of the movie, it is also going to divide a lot of people as well.  The movie has received a bunch of accolades so far, including winning the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which is often seen a precursor for an Oscar win.  But, upon it’s release, it has divided the critical community down the middle, and will probably be reflected in the general public as well.  Like I said, this is not an easy movie to watch, and it will probably test your sensibilities.  But, if there is one thing that I think will garner near universal praise from this movie, it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  Phoenix is absolutely magnetic in this role, and you cannot take your eyes off of him throughout the entire movie.  What’s especially great about his performance is that he never once makes you think of the character as a comic book creation, nor makes you recall any previous version of the Joker.  It’s an entirely original take that is all his own, and is so enormously layered in it’s complexity.  I don’t know exactly where to rank this among the others, because his Joker is not as scary as Heath Ledger’s nor as entertaining as Jack Nicholson’s, but his version is far more disturbing than the others because it’s the most human that we’ve ever seen this character.  Phoenix’s transformation is really amazing, as he lost a ton of weight to create Arthur Fleck as this emaciated, sickly individual. Even his laugh takes on this disturbing quality because Phoenix really sells the point that the laugh is physically hurting him.  As a result, he does a brilliant job of showing you the real reason why Joker is such a frightening creation, because there’s a human being behind that painted smile; a deeply broken human being.  Phoenix has made a career out of playing troubled, broken people like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005) and Freddie Quell in The Master (2012).  Arthur Fleck brings those same qualities, but adds this tragic element of an un-redeemable spirit behind it.  Even if people end up finding the movie too disturbing, they’ll still come away praising the hard work that Joaquin Phoenix put into his performance.

While there is plenty to praise about the movie, I also have to point out that it isn’t perfect as well.  Strangely enough, the biggest flaw that the movie has is that it interrupts itself in order to remind you that you are indeed watching a movie based in the DC Universe.  That’s probably a testament to how powerfully told the central narrative is that you forget that this is the same Joker that will one day become the arch-nemesis to Batman.  I almost feel like this movie could have been better if it set itself apart from it’s comic book origins and instead just told this story of an ordinary man who evolves into this notorious monster.  But, unfortunately, this movie still will occasionally drop a reminder of other things going on within the Batman mythos.  The caped crusader doesn’t appear fully formed in this movie, which is understandable considering that it’s many years before that happens.  But, there is a scene where Arthur does encounter the boy who will be Batman, Bruce Wayne (played here by young actor Dante Pereira-Olson) and his caretaker Alfred (played by Douglas Hodge).  It’s not a bad scene by any means, and it does have a chilling creep factor to it, but it doesn’t really add anything to the plot and just reads like a studio note demanding that there at least be some connecting thread to Batman in this.  The other negative that I can point to with the movie is that while the allusions to the work of Martin Scorsese are wonderfully crafted and utilized in the narrative here, it kind of works against the film as well.  It follows almost too closely to the narratives of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which robs the movie of any real surprise.  Sure, the film still shocks us once we get to the ultimate destination, but with those Scorsese movies well ingrained into our cultural memory, you pretty much know what to expect, and that in a way makes the finale feel a little less shocking.  Even still, it’s not a fatal flaw that derails the movie; it just keeps it from reaching it’s absolute maximum impact.  What it mainly comes down to is that the movie is at it’s absolute best when it doesn’t remind you of other movies or other versions of this story, and just let’s itself go as it’s own dark, demented tale.

Considering where DC was just a few short years ago, as they were floundering trying to find their way while also catching up to Marvel, it is great to see now that they are not only confident telling stories on the big screen their way, but also taking some brave chances as well.  This R-rated, bleak and unforgiving Joker is in a class all by itself within the genre of Comic Book movies.  I for one am amazed that DC allowed for this kind of movie to be told with one of their characters.  Sure, it’s the Joker we are talking about, but even still, we’ve never seen a portrayal like this that felt this raw and challenged it’s audience this much.  Joaquin Phoenix’s performance certainly doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Comic Book movie and that’s what makes it so great.  He didn’t go into this movie to bring the character off the page and onto the screen; he wanted to bring to life an image of monster that is all too frighteningly real.  In the end, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix could’ve told this story without all the comic book mythos behind it, and still made a powerful movie.  But because this is about a character as iconic as the Joker, it’s going to bring a lot more attention to this movie, and that’s something that is really worthwhile in the end.  Joker transcends it’s comic origin to become a cautionary tale for it’s time.  As our world becomes ever more divided and violent, and people are more prone to violent ends to either make a point or grab attention, the Joker becomes even more potent of a symbol, and this movie intends to show just how dangerous that can be.  Joker is not some larger than life monster; he’s one of us, all too human.  The movie puts the onus on us the viewer to understand how we as a society contribute to makings of a monster like the Joker, with either our apathy towards the disenfranchised or our ignorance towards an issue.  There’s not one true reason why a Joker exists, but a whole bunch of factors, and this movie tries to help us understand how those factors manifest into something so horrible.  The movie is definitely not a fun little romp nor a rousing adventure, but it’s perhaps the hard medicine that we need right now to understand this moment in time.  And the fact that we get there with a character like the Joker is probably the most surprising joke of them all.

Rating: 8.5/10

It: Chapter Two – Review

If there was ever a shared cinematic universe that has yet to be properly exploited, it’s the one from the mind of author Stephen King.  King, the modern master of horror, has churned out novel after novel over nearly 50 years of writing and with all that has created one of the most prolific canons ever in literature.  What’s even more surprising about all of his novels is the fact that many contain a shared mythology.  Sure it’s a convoluted and bizarre mythology that loosely ties his stories together, but it’s there and it’s very much a product of his imagination.  But those ties have never really been explored too deeply on the big screen, because as much as Stephen King has a devoted fan base and a body of work worth a dozen or so franchises, King’s relationship with Hollywood has been a sometimes contentious one.  Very protective of his own work, King often oversees the adaptations of his books into film himself, ensuring that everything he values from his own writing makes it onto the screen in tact.  Because so many of his novels run on the long side, he often forgoes taking his books to the big screen in favor of creating television mini-series instead, because the longer format gives him the time he needs to include everything from the books.  This often has come with it’s own downside, as King has had to compromise the more graphic elements of his stories in order to meet television standards, but it’s a compromise he has been willing to make in order to retain his control over the adaptation.  This probably stemmed from the 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which King famously hated because of all the changes Kubrick had made to make it more “theatrical.”  The receptions of his television adaptations have been fairly mixed over the years, from positive (Under the Dome) to very negative (The Langoliers).  But if the was one that proved to be a standout, it was probably his 1990 miniseries of his most famous novel; IT.

For a novel with a title as simple as IT, it is remarkably monstrous in size.  Running the length of a Bible, IT is peak Stephen King, in both the best and worst ways.  For one thing, it has some of the most surreal and frightening imagery that he has ever committed to the page.  One the other hand, it is also bloated and meandering, and just plain weird for weird’s sake, showing the author at his most indulgent.  The novel is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps it’s most famous creation is the titular monster at it’s center; the demon clown who also goes by the name Pennywise.  Even the novel’s most ardent critics will admit that Pennywise is one of King’s most enduring creations.  Anyone who’s already afraid of clowns will no doubt be traumatized by the mere thought of this character, which makes the novel all the more famous, because of the often provocative covers of the novel, which continue to display the demented smile of the monster, even to this day.  Stephen King’s TV mini-series adaptation ran for two nights shortly before Thanksgiving in 1990, and it very much was a TV event.  In retrospect, it hasn’t aged very well, and does feel like a neutered version of the original novel (with good reason considering some portions).  But again, it was Pennywise that was the standout, with actor Tim Curry giving a now lauded performance.  While satisfying to Stephen King, a lot of fans of the novel felt that the mini-series left a lot to be desired and that a movie version was needed to do the book justice for real.  But how do you take the immensity of the novel IT and do it justice on the big screen.  The answer came 25 years later when director Andy Muschietti came up with the idea of taking the two time periods of the novel (when the main characters are children and adults) and splitting them into two separate movies.  The novel intertwines the time periods, and the mini-series more or less stuck with that structure too.  But Muschietti’s approach worked very well and the first film, IT (2017), which focused on the characters as children, broke box office records.  Now, this week, we are presented with the final, It: Chapter Two, and the question now is was the cinematic approach taken effective enough?

IT: Chapter Two begins right after the close of the first chapter, with a rag tag band of pre-teens who call themselves “The Losers Club,” recovering from their near death encounter with the demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard).  The all swear to each other that if Pennywise ever returned to their hometown of Derry, Maine, they would as well in order to destroy “it” once and for all; no matter what.  27 years later, after a mysterious murder is committed in Derry, with all the tell-tale signs of the Clown’s handiwork, a grown up Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) begins to call up the friends that he hasn’t seen in years, delivering them news of the day they hoped never would come.  Among them include prolific writer Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), comedian Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), successful entrepreneur Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), insurance risk analyst and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome), and deeply scarred Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain).  They meet in a Chinese restaurant back in Derry, and fondly reminisce, until they realize that one of their friends, Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is not there with them.  They soon learn that Stanley had that same day taken his own life, and the painful memories that they had surprisingly forgotten all start flooding back.  And then, Pennywise’s mind tricks begin to manifest.  Some of them want to flee as quickly as possible, but Mike claims he has found a way to entrap Pennywise and seal him away for good.  It involves them making a sacrifice a token of their past in a ritual, so each of them sets out to find something in town they had left behind.  However, the longer they stay in Derry, the easier it becomes for Pennywise to begin playing with their minds again.  On top of that, the former bully who tormented the Losers Club as children named Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) has been broken out of an insane asylum with Pennywise’s help, tasked with killing each one of the Losers.  Whether hunted by evil living, dead, or otherwise, the Losers Club are determined to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, which becomes all the more difficult as the Clown only grows more powerful the more fear he spreads across town.

The first IT from 2017 was a surprise hit that year, breaking every conceivable record for a horror movie during it’s run, as well as setting new high water marks for the month of September and the fall movie season in general.  It benefited greatly from the book’s long standing reputation, and also from a strongly emphasized theme of nostalgia at the heart of the film.  Since the first movie depicted the story of the main characters in the past, it made sense to have it set in the past (the 1980’s to be exact) so that Chapter Two could have a contemporary setting.  Because of this, there was a lot of 80’s flavor added to the movie that gave it some extra character, not unlike the Stranger Things TV series that owes a lot of it’s inspiration to the works of Stephen King itself.  Given how well the first movie resonated with audiences, the pressure was on to follow it up strong with the inevitable Chapter Two.  And I have to say, director Andy Muschietti met the challenge and then some.  When comparing the two, I have to say that I found Chapter Two to be even better than the original.  Though I liked the first IT well enough, I thought that it was a bit uneven in tone, fluctuating wildly between moments of sincerity and moments of absurd over-the-top insanity.  IT: Chapter Two follows much more the unhinged weirdness of the latter, and it benefits greatly from that.  I think that in the time between films, Andy Muschietti realized the best way to approach the story was to really embrace the zanier aspects of King’s novel, and avoid the melodrama altogether.  The first film at times felt like a mash-up of Stand By Me (1986) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which often made it feel distractingly sporadic in tone.  Here, the movie sticks with the creepiness and keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.  And it’s a formula that for the most part works.

One thing that I actually found myself really impressed with about this movie was how well paced it is.  IT: Chapter Two  remarkably has a run-time of nearly three hours, which is unheard of for a horror movie.  The first IT also ran at a bulky 2 1/2 hours, and when you combine the two, that makes for nearly 5 hours total devoted to this story.  But, given the length of King’s novel, it’s understandable.  Even so, Muschitetti manages to never make this movie feel it’s length, and he does so by constantly delivering new set pieces to drive the story along.  Every character is given their own standout segment of the movie, some more frightening than the others.  I haven’t read the novel myself to compare how much of what ended up in the movie came from the book itself, but each encounter with Pennywise in the movie is thankfully diverse and keeps revving up the tension up until the end.  I especially like a scene with James McAvoy’s Bill attempting to save a child trapped in a Hall of Mirrors maze while Pennywise is on the other side of the glass.  It’s an especially creepy scene with incredible atmosphere, which is owed a lot to the movie’s exceptional production design.  There’s very little of the movie that feels rehashed, even from the original movie, and that helps to give it an identity all it’s own.  In some ways, the movie owes just as much inspiration to the work of director Sam Raimi as it does Stephen King, as it balances the juxtaposing tones of humor and horror with a great amount of skill, something Raimi excelled at with his Evil Dead films. It works much better than the Spielbergian overtones that director Muschietti tried to incorporate into the first IT.  You’ll definitely be finding yourself laughing at this movie just as much as you’ll be clutching the armrest of your seat in anticipated terror.  Few movies can strike that balance, and I felt that Chapter Two did better than most.

The other thing that I also found really remarkable about the movie was just how well cast it was.  For one thing, this is a very strong ensemble of adult actors, with impressive bodies of work of their own.  For one thing, Jessica Chastain is one of my favorite actresses working today, and it is nice to see her here in the very crucial role of Beverly, elevating the part beyond just being the token girl of the Losers Club.  James McAvoy always delivers solid work no matter the role, and it’s especially pleasing to see comedic actor Bill Hader given such a meaty role in a big movie like this, helping to boost his stock as a film actor.  But, what is especially impressive about this cast is just how close they all look like their younger counterparts from the original IT.  You put these actors side by side with the young actors who played the same characters in the other film, and you could definitely believe that they are the same person 27 years apart.  There’s even one incredible moment in the movie when the picture dissolves from the face of James Ransone playing Eddie in the present day to the face of young Jack Dylan Grazer playing Eddie in the past, and the similarity is uncanny.  Andy Muschietti probably intended to cast for lookalikes, but you rarely see it done this well in movies.  There are moments where the movie does have to remind you that we are seeing different time periods at play, and surprisingly we revisit the past quite a bit in this movie.  You can tell at some points that some of the young actors had short window to film their scenes before their bodies changed too much; such as Finn Wolfhard (Young Richie) and Wyatt Oleff (Young Stanley) who both grew several inches between movies.  But the effect still works for the most part and the movie goes between different time periods with ease.  It also has to be said that the one constant for both films, Pennywise, still remains strong.  Bill Skarsgard looks like he’s having a blast playing this character, which is something he has in common with Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character.  It’s always hard to portray terror with the guise and personality of a clown, but he nails it and becomes both terrifying and hilarious at the same time throughout his performance.

All this being said, the movie is not without it’s faults either, which keeps it from becoming an all time great as well.  The interesting thing is that the problems with this movie come less from the crafting of the movie and instead comes from the story itself.  Even with an expanded budget and more time to devote to the material, I still think that no amount of time and money could make everything from Stephen King’s novel work on the big screen, and there are moments in Chapter Two that I still feel could have been changed or excised completely.  One is the completely unnecessary Henry Bowers plot cul-de-sac which is as pointless here as it was in the original mini-series, and I assume in the book as well.  It even culminates in an underwhelming resolution, which just made me wonder why it was even deserving of being here in the first place other than just as a way of remaining true to King’s novel.  You know, there was a reason why Kubrick took the living hedge monsters out of The Shining, because he rightly knew that it wouldn’t have worked on film, and that it would have been an unnecessary addition.  King should understand that while his books are amazing creations, not every single idea in them is golden, and that definitely becomes apparent by the film’s end.  There’s a running joke in the movie where people’s common complaint about the books that Bill writes, saying that he’s terrible at writing endings, which is a self aware nod to the often universal complaint about IT‘s almost universally hated ending.  But, even despite making a self-aware joke, even this version still can’t overcome the silliness of it’s climax, which is another example of the filmmakers perhaps adhering too closely to the source material.  At least this time around, they try a little harder to make the ending work; they do it better than the mini-series anyway.  But, yeah, it’s still the weakest part of the movie, but not enough to undermine what had come before.  And the novel is even weirder than what we see in the movie (no giant cosmic turtle in this one I’m afraid) so I commend them for trying to fix as much of the original story’s problems as they could, but even still, Stephen King’s novels unfortunately have just as many problems as they do their strengths, and that even extends into the best adaptations of his work.

For the most part, as a horror film and an adaptation of Stephen King’s writing, IT: Chapter Two is a success, hindered solely by shortcomings of the original story itself.  I thought that this movie did fix a lot of the uneven tone that undermined the first movie in the series, and I was especially impressed by how well it utilized it’s nearly three hours of run-time.  You really don’t feel those three hours at all, which is a triumph in itself.  The cast is uniformly excellent and I was impressed with how well each matched their younger counterparts from the first movie.  Bill Skarsgard definitely deserves a lot of praise for creating a memorable version of Pennywise for the big screen.  Filling Tim Curry’s big clown shoes is not easy, but I feel that Skarsgard’s Pennywise is on par with the original.  The only thing I would say Curry’s version has over his is the voice, with Tim’s natural baritone coming off a lot more sinister than Skarsgard’s squeakier tenor.  I also appreciated that the movie embraced it’s sillier tone at times, never taking itself too seriously, which allows for the zanier Stephen King elements to land more effectively as the movie goes along.  Again, the faults in the film have more to do with the fact that King wrote too much into the original story to begin with and also, in a way, had no idea how to wrap it all up in the end.  King is much better at crafting ideas than a full, perfectly constructed narrative, and that often has been something that has been a blessing and a curse for him as a novelist.  At least now, thanks to Andy Muschietti’s valiant efforts, we do have a cinematic version of it spread over two films that probably be the closest we’ll ever get to a perfect adaptation of this monumental novel.  I for one am happy to see an earnest attempt like this of bringing Stephen King’s writing to the big screen and my hope is that we see more like this in the future.  There have been many King adaptations over the years, but few actually do the books justice, or even elevate beyond what King envisioned, so with IT Chapters 1 & 2, it is pleasing to see someone take the biggest and most complicated book of them all and actually deliver something worthwhile with it.  And that’s no laughing matter.

Rating: 8/10