Hidden Figures (Review)

Hidden Figures (Review)

History is often unpleasant.  So unpleasant, even, that sometimes we would rather overlook or omit the bad parts of it.  To do so, however, would mean to omit the important parts of those bad times.

Hidden Figures is about a group of African-American women who work at NASA during the Mercury Program and also during the time of segregation.  It stars Taraji P. Henson (Empire) as Katherine Goble, a brilliant mathematician tasked with calculating the trajectories of the flight of the Mercury program.  Though she may be the main character, the film doesn’t leave out the other people who also struggled during this time.  Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who does the work of a supervisor but is not paid or treated as one, while Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, an engineer who can’t obtain a degree due to the school being segregated.  All three of these women are simply brilliant.  Brilliantly acted and also brilliantly characterized, often being smarter and better than their white counterparts, but due to color of their skin, are never recognized as being such.

This is Hidden Figures greatest strength.  It would be easy to paint the casual racism of the times as being altogether evil (which they were, make no mistake about that), but director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), takes a more objective view of the situation, taking a step back and leaving personal views out of the movie.  Instead, he simply shows what the time was like with simple shots of segregated water fountains, segregated bathrooms and even segregated coffee machines.  Without condoning or condemning, Melfi simply lets the shots speak for themselves and allows the audience to make up their own minds about how they feel about that.

That’s not to say that the characters within the film are passive to the struggle.  Far from it.  The struggle exists and permeates throughout every aspect of their daily lives.  No one, not even the white characters, are exempt from it.  Though many of them can claim that they’re not racist, they are still completely unaware of the struggles that the black characters go through on a daily basis, such as having to walk 40 min across campus just to go to a bathroom that they are allowed to use.

The most important thing this movie has done, though, is taught you who these women were.  History often ignores the accomplishments of people that are deemed “unimportant.”  Hidden Figures proves that these women were not only important but essential to the struggle of getting an American into space.  It proves that their story is a story worth telling.  And it proves that their story is also a story about America.

La La Land (Review)

La La Land (Review)

This movie might very well be the first film that can be described as a modern musical.

La La Land is a film by director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), starring Emma Stone as Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder, an aspiring jazz musician, who meet and fall in love in Los Angeles.  To say anything more would ruin the experience.  All I can say is that it is, unabashedly, a musical.

Like the jazz music that Ryan Gosling’s character loves so much, the movie musical is a dying art.  The golden age of the movie musical came and went back in the 50s and 60s, and the only musicals that come out nowadays are musicals that were made famous on the stage first, like Rent and Les Miserables.  While these musicals are great in their own respects, these musicals made for the stage should be listed separate from musicals made specifically for film, something that hasn’t been made in nearly fourty years.

La La Land is a movie musical that both follows typical musical tropes but does not feel beholden to them.  Like the vaudeville that movie musicals were taken from, the songs and dance numbers act more as expression of the emotions of the characters than an advancement of the story.  The first dance number between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling serves more to illustrate that though they keep saying they don’t like each other, there is an undeniable attraction between them that can only be described through dance.

That said, La La Land also breaks certain tropes with the musical by also portraying a relationship that has it’s own ups and downs.  Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters both have dreams that they work hard to achieve, but the harder they work, the more they begin to realize that they may have to compromise on those dreams as the realities of world sets in.  Wanting to be an actress is a good dream, but what happens when you are rejected over and over again?  Wanting to open your own night club is all well and good, but until you get there, how do you pay for food and rent?  These are all questions this couple finds itself asking as life continues onward and it is questions that can only be asked by this generation.

La La Land is a rare film that manages to both look backwards and forwards at the same time.  A touching love letter to a previously thought dead genre, it manages to bring this genre back to the world with renewed vigor. In a generation learning that their dreams may not come true no matter how hard you work for it, this film proves that you should never stop dreaming.

Assassin’s Creed (Review)

Assassin’s Creed (Review)

Wow, there was a lot of smoke in this movie.

After being rescued by Abstergo Industries from his own execution, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is forced to go into a device called the Animus by Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and her father, Alan Rikkin (Jeremy irons), CEO of Abstergo.  They are members of the Templar Order, a secret society with the goal of subjugating all of mankind for their own good.  They are at war with the Assassin Brotherhood, who Callum has ancestry with.  In the Animus, Callum relives the memories of his ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha, who fought the templars during the Spanish Inquisition.

As you can tell by the description, this is undoubtedly a movie based on a video game, and one of my favorite video game series from developer Ubisoft.  This is a video game that I played a lot and enjoy quite a bit (when it’s not as convoluted as the above paragraph).  I feel I can speak for all gamers when I say that I really wanted this movie to be good.  Fans have been due a good video game movie.  That one movie that paves the way for other movies and finally shows that video game adaptations can work and can be as good or even better than other movies.  I am saddened to say that Assassin’s Creed is not that movie.  Though it is also not a bad movie either.

It is a strange movie to say the least.  The beginning is pretty weak, going for an opening crawl that explains the war between the Templars and the Assassins that’s just plain boring.  Show don’t tell.  Star Wars gets away with it because it’s against a star field background and John Williams rocks the music.  The only music in this scene comes right at the end and it’s a really dated and tacky rock number that completely clashes with the period scene they just set up.  The only reason they put that explanation at the beginning is probably the same reason any one makes any decision when making a video game movie: they’re ashamed of the source material.  They need to quickly explain this “silly” plot so people can get over the fact it’s silly and then show them the awesome stuff.  I’m sorry.  It doesn’t work like that.

People seem to have the impression that anything video games do is just silly, even when it’s not.  It’s almost like these people don’t realize that people spent a lot of time and effort making these worlds and crafting these stories so they could be the best that they could be.  If you’re going to make a movie based on their efforts, take their efforts seriously.

It’s not all bad, though.  Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are the duo that really carries this movie.  It’s a rare thing to watch an action movie and realize that you care more about these two’s relationship and it’s growth than the actual action.  I was surprised to find that these two people are actually three-dimensional characters.  I wasn’t watching Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard; I was watching Callum Lynch and Sophia Rikkin.

This movie also makes the mistake that the video games have been making for a while: taking place primarily in the present day.  About 70% of the movie takes place in the present day, whereas only the action scenes take place in the past.  While it makes more sense in the movie than in the video games, the past scenes serve only as action set pieces.  While they are amazing set pieces, it’s marred by the fact that a good chunk of it is CGI.  How do I know it’s CGI?  Because they try their hardest to cover it up with smoke.  Like, a lot of smoke.  It’s a good technique, really.  Use smoke in the foreground to cover up the CGI and make it look realistic.  The problem with that is that there’s smoke in the foreground.  Meaning you can’t see any of the action happening.

I really wanted this movie to be good.  It should have been good.  It’s definitely not the worst video game adaptation I’ve seen, but it is not the video game adaptation that proves that video game adaptations have a place in serious film.  All it does is solidify video game adaptations as the B-Movies of Hollywood.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Review)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Review)

Ah, Star Wars.  One of two iconic sci-fi properties to ever grace our cultural mind.  Regardless of how you view the Prequels or the changes made to originals, you can’t deny that Star Wars, as a phenomenon, is here to say.  And now with the return of Star Wars last year with Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it seems we are going to be getting more and more Star Wars in the years to come.  This year, we got Rogue One, the first of the Anthology series of Star Wars films, covering side stories and the backgrounds of famous characters.

Rogue One is the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a career criminal who is taken and forced to join the Rebel Alliance to find her father, the unwilling architect for the Death Star.  She is forced to accompany career Rebel Alliance Soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and repurposed Imperial droid, K-2SO.  Along their journey, they are joined by recently defected Imperial Pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior and believer in the Force, Chirrut Imwe, (Donnie Yen) and his partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

The first thing I have to give props for is the diversity of the cast.  Not just diverse in the sense of their racial background (I’m still very happy about their casting choices), but also in how different the characters are.  Although I was not able to remember their names (not because they were unmemorable but because they were in no ways as easy to remember as Han, Luke or Leia, this being set in a galaxy far, far away), I could instantly recognize each character.  When the camera flashed to a shot of one of the characters, there was no way I was going to confuse who it was.  I knew exactly who it was.

This just makes it even more of a shame that character development really took a back seat to the plot.  There is a lot of pathos going on for these characters that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.  Things do come to a head in the film between two characters, but it never really feels resolved.  It just happens and then you’re off to the next set piece.  This happens to Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, an extremist who has been broken by the war.  His whole character appears to be to show just what a war can do to a person but in the end, we can’t spend too much time on this without sacrificing the rest of the movie so what we’re left with is a character with a weird rasping voice.

Speaking of, there are quite a lot of references to previous films.  Either characters that appeared in previous films (like Grand Moff Tarkin in a CGI role that is a little hard to get used to for the first few minutes), or places that are revisited (one location actually made me go “oh, hey, we’re back here again” in the theater).  There are so many references that I started to wonder if any of them were actually necessary.  Where do you draw the line between a reference that is there because it would make sense story-wise for them to be there, and a reference that is there just for the sake of a reference?

One thing that I will appreciate is that this film is by far the darkest Star Wars film of the franchise, because this is absolutely a war film.  People die, sometimes not for victory but for the chance of victory.  This is not the time frame of A New Hope because in this time frame, hope doesn’t exist yet.  This is the edgier side of Star Wars that hasn’t really been seen in a while, and I appreciate that.  It makes the franchise feel more alive.

I truly enjoyed the film.  From start to finish, I really did enjoy it.  With that said, I can’t help the more I think about it, the more problems I find.  The characters aren’t as developed as I would have liked, though this is a much larger cast than in previous films.  Everything just moves from set piece to next set piece.  Having said all of that, at the end of the day, it was truly a story worth telling and I’m still glad I went to see it.  Plus, the final scene with Darth Vader (it’s not a spoiler to know that Darth Vader is in this movie, the trailers showed that he was) was well worth the price of admission.

Moana (Review)

Moana (Review)

Directed by Disney duo Ron Clements and Jon Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, who is chosen by the ocean itself to reunite a mystical relic with a goddess.  She sets sail in search of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) as she hopes to save her people.

I was really excited for this movie, mainly because the Polynesian culture is a culture that is very rarely seen in films.  And the film did not disappoint. Right from the start, the film immerses you in Polynesian culture, to the point that I am still humming and listening to “We Know the Way” even days after watching it.  Though, I guess I could say that of every song in the film as each song is catchy and powerful, and the soundtrack as a whole is more focused and thematically linked than Frozen, which suffered from a soundtrack and sounded like it was written by fifteen different people.

Everything from the music to the design of the characters instantly makes the film stand out from other similarly animated films such as Frozen and Tangled.  I make those comparisons mainly because the animation style (or at least the style of the characters) reminds me a lot of them.  Though I guess it’s no surprise considering that they are all animated by the same team.  It’s by no means a problem nor is it a distraction, though I almost wish the art style was different in order to differentiate the movies from each other artistically.  I remember how Mulan was animated to almost appear like a Chinese painting and I wish Moana was more Polynesian in style as well as story.

That issue is just a minor one for me, however.  While I was watching I didn’t care about the style because I was wrapped up in the story, the characters and the music.  While the story suffers in certain places (the beginning sort of drags and meanders while a character’s return at the end feels abrupt), it is the characters that sell it.  Moana is strong-willed but also unsure of herself.  In fact, it is her internal struggle that ends up being more interesting than her external struggle and I will always love movies like that.  It gives the film it’s center, it’s heart and it’s how we latch on to a character.  I don’t care who you are, at some point in your life you struggled with the age old question of “who you are.”

This theme of identity also extends to Maui, who at first appears to a somewhat charming yet brutish and selfish warrior, changes towards the end as we explore where he came from and why he is the way it is.  His struggles never overshadows Moana’s struggles, however, and the focus always remains on Moana and her adventure.  I say ‘adventure’ and not ‘story’ because this film really is an adventure form start to finish.  The common sentiment with this film is that Moana is Disney’s first action princess and they are absolutely correct.  She knows what she needs to do and she rarely hesitates.

Moana was an absolute joy from start to finish.  It’s funny, it’s endearing and I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would.  You should absolutely watch this movie.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Review)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Review)

I, like most of the known world, have been a fan of Harry Potter since I started reading it as a child.  My relationships with the movie adaptations, on the other hand, have more or less been hit or miss.  While I enjoy them overall, I never like how much they cut out of the books.  I understand the need to fit the film into a manageable viewing time, but I always felt that certain scenes that were cut from the book were sometimes necessary to understand not only the characters but the story overall.  I’ll never forgive the fact that they completely cut out the final conversation between Harry and Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and condensed it down to a few scant lines that barely cover anything.

Still, one can’t deny the cultural impact that Harry Potter has had on a generation and with the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was content with the journey and I moved on with my life.  I guess I moved on too well because Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released and I still haven’t read it.  And to be honest, I wasn’t that excited to hear about five new movies.  Perhaps in my mind, Harry Potter is over and done with so it’s hard to accept anything new.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard who studies and takes care of magical creatures, as he travels to New York.  When he bumps into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a down on his luck no-maj (muggle for the British), magical beasts from Newt’s briefcase are released and they, along with former Auror Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), must go through the city collecting them before the Wizarding World is exposed.

Right from the get-go, this film feels like the last four films of the Harry Potter films, due, no doubt, to David Yates’ direction.  So, right from the get-go, this film feels a lot darker than the early years of Harry Potter, which makes sense because while the film still has the magic and whimsy that befits the Wizarding World, this is still the world of adults who have to deal with adult issues.

This is the source of the problem that I feel the film has.  There are two distinct storylines that are running through the film.  One deals with Newt and Jacob’s efforts to recapture the creatures that escaped.  This is the story that is filled with wonder and joy.  The other deals with Tina and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) attempting to find a creature that wreaking havoc through New York.  This is the story that is filled with some of the darkest material I’ve ever seen in the Harry Potter universe.

How can you reconcile a fun and upbeat story about capturing unique and fantastical creatures with a story of witch-hunts and child abuse?  Plus, this new series has to introduce a completely new side of the Wizarding World (the culture of the Wizarding World in America), so the beginning of the movie meanders around, making Newt’s storyline feel unimportant in the face of the true story, of an invisible beast of rage killing and destroying New York.  And in the middle of it all, there’s Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), an adopted son of a witch-hunter who is frequently beaten with a belt.

Speaking of which, there are several actors who simply excel as their characters.  Dan Fogler is simply delightful as Jacob, allowing us to see a no-maj viewing magic for the first time with the same love that us fans had when we first saw it.  Ezra Miller draws so much sympathy for his struggle.  Even Colin Farrell is interesting if only to see a view of magic that isn’t really expressed, the view that the law hurts more people than it helps.

Even with these wonderful characters, though, it can’t help the fact that the film just feels like events transpire only to set up events in the sequels because films today aren’t interested in being good films, they’re interested in setting up franchises.  How one character’s arc ends was extremely bold and surprised me (I always love it when films surprise me), but it also left me wondering what the point of it was?  It didn’t make sense in this film but I have the feeling that it will make sense in the next films.

Having said all of that, I want to see what happens in the next films.  Maybe it’s the magic of Harry Potter but even with all the problems I see in the film, I still want to see where this series takes me.  I probably enjoyed it much more than the original movies, which is probably because this isn’t based on a book and there was nothing cut out of it that I felt shouldn’t have been cut. In the end, it is a fun film to watch, and despite all the problems I found with it, I still enjoyed my time visiting the Wizarding World again.  And I believe this will probably be the film that makes me finally read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Trolls (Review)

Trolls (Review)

Where do I even begin with this film?

Trolls are about the Trolls, those toys that you had as kids with small bodies but long hair, who live in the forest singing, dancing, making scrapbook and generally being happy all the time.  They have a predator, a race called the Bergens, who can only be happy by eating Trolls.  When Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), throws a loud party, it draws the town to the attention of the bergen, Chef (Christine Baranski), who kidnaps Poppy’s friends.  She forces Branch (Justin Timberlake), an unhappy and sarcastic troll, to accompany her as they go off to rescue their friends.

To say that I was confused throughout the whole movie is an understatement.  Nothing in this world makes sense.  It’s all topsy-turvy with strange animals and even stranger settings.  It almost looks like a world straight from a Dr. Seuss book.  I have to say, though, that I found myself ignoring the strangeness and just going along for the ride.  It has a charm which is probably due to their awareness that this is all crazy.  They know how insane this is, but just go with it.

While I can enjoy the movie and the music, I worry that the music will eventually become dated.  Every song seems to be a rehashed version of a Top 40 song which just makes it easier to date.  The songs are catchy though and serve a purpose of moving the emotional plot along.

The animation is interesting in its own right.  Everything about the world, from the trees to the animals, are designed to look like they’re made out of scrapbook felt and paper.  If anything, this whole thing was designed to look like it was a book made by a child (which, even the craziness of the world, it probably was).

The characters are your typical kids movie stereotypes.  Anna Kendrick is the happy go lucky one while Justin Timberlake is the sourpuss and they have to work together to do the right thing.  This whole film does have the feeling of a corporate paint by numbers movie.

Still, I found myself enjoying it, even though the movie is predictable.  The songs are catchy, the visuals are ridiculously bizarre and the characters are funny.  The best analogy I can think of is that this movie is like cotton candy: it’s sweet, fluffy and colorful with not much substance, but if you can enjoy it for what it is, then it’s a good time.