La La Land

Posted: December 29, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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In this modern age of mega blockbusters and sequels and spinoffs, many film studios and directors have lost sight of what it means to create a film. Oh, they know how to make a film—-in some ways, far more than the classic film-makers of old—-but they’ve forgotten what it means to craft a film; to imbue it with class and charm. While this reviewer enjoys the big CGI spectacles and high-octane thrillers just as much as any warm-blooded American, I find immense satisfaction in indulging in the films from the golden age of Hollywood; where a good story and a sincere desire to uplift was worth more than any immense box office revenue. Today, it seems that anything is made if it has even a chance of attracting piles of dough. But every once in a while, a film comes along that reminds us just how special and magical something like going the movies can truly be.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone—–The Help, Birdman) dreams of making it big in Hollywood, but is consistently turned down at every audition. Meanwhile, struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling—–Drive, The Big Short) is coping with a changing world where jazz music is no longer as beloved as it used to be. As the two are entwined (initially by less than romantic means), each one learns to joy in the other’s passions and encourage each other to pursue their natural talents. But as time passes with little progress in their endeavors, their love is tested as they must make professional sacrifices that press on their deep desires to see each other succeed.

Also starring: J.K. Simmons and John Legend  

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The theme of succeeding with your goals is about as universal as the theme of true romance. We all have passions that drive us in our day-to-day activities. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to pursue your dreams when you’re in the arts. La La Land emphasizes the rigmaroles of dreaming and succeeding just as much as it places romance in a sublime light.

La La Land utilizes that old-fashioned charm that embodied the films that it strives to pay homage to. Musical numbers and dance routines complement the film in truly mesmerizing ways, being in the vein of such musical classics like Singin’ In The Rain (and even a subtle and tender nod to Casablanca). While any modern musical that isn’t a Disney film is an enormous risk, this film pulls it all off with aplomb. Scenes that take place within a single take—-where the camera sweeps back and forth over performers—-is executed with accuracy. Song and dance numbers are complimented by beautiful set pieces. And the film perfectly captures the look and tone of Hollywood productions of old.

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While many actors are used throughout the film, none ever stay on screen for more than a few minutes. Instead, the film focuses on Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, allowing their phenomenal acting skills to shine through. The two have great chemistry together and feed off of each other’s charisma and whimsy. As you follow their journey together through more glamorous parts of Los Angeles, you feel truly connected to these characters and care deeply for their story. By film’s end, a genuine fondness has been so expertly established between audience and cast.

In a nutshell:

You don’t see films made like this any more. It’s an unfortunate reality, but nonetheless makes this film that much more special and unique. Throughout the film, you’re held captive by exhilarating music (much in the form of classic jazz) accompanied with soft, absorbing tunes that perfectly reflect the film’s tone. And all of it is enhanced by vibrant dance routines with equally gorgeous cinematography. But all of the effort to dutifully capture the golden age of Hollywood is made worthwhile by a seemingly-clichéd story that culminates with a bitter-sweet ending that’s anything but clichéd. For the film aficionado, La La Land is a wholly fresh experience. For the fan of musicals, it’s a symphony of sights and sounds. But for anybody, it’s a completely euphoric experience. Can you say “Oscar nominations”?

 

9 stars

Rogue One

Posted: December 21, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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Before Luke Skywalker studied to become a Jedi, before Darth Vader’s diabolical exploits, before the Death Star’s grand demise, before two droids crashed onto the desert, before the classic opening shot of a modest Rebel transport being attacked by a hulking Star Destroyer, there were these words: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR . . . Thirty-nine years after these words preceded one of the greatest film series of all time, we finally get a glimpse of the heroic account of the men and women who defied oppressive tyranny and provided hope for the galaxy.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

On her own from a young age, the fearless Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones—–The Theory of Everything) is tasked by the Rebellion to track down her father, who has been critical in the construction of the planet-destroying Death Star. Upon discovery that her father has engineered a critical but minor flaw in the battle station’s construction, Jyn instills hope in the faltering Rebellion and leads a band of freedom fighters to secure the plans in order to exploit its weakness.

Also starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Wen Jiang, and James Earl Jones

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The Force Awakens was a rousing, often uplifting film with darker subtleties, yes, but an ideal sense of the series’ signature flair for adventure. While that film was great for its own reasons, Rogue One utilizes a refreshingly different tone to tell a story wholly unique to the series’ canon. It’s the first non-episodic film we’ve seen, a risk that very well could have fallen flat on its multi-billion dollar face. But if there’s one thing Disney has proven (especially with the Marvel superhero films), it’s that they know how to handle multiple stories within a shared universe.

Screenwriters and action choreographers from films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down put their touch on this film, and you can certainly see their finger prints all over it. As previously mentioned, the Star Wars films have always adopted a more exciting, uber-heroic style of film-making. Rogue One manages to take off the polish and deliver something with a bit more grit. It has that “used”, “lived-in” feel that A New Hope had; though Stormtrooper armor isn’t quite as shiny and brand-new, and the Rebellion isn’t as spit-spot with regulation uniforms and matching weapons. This Rebellion feels less orderly and more rag-tag, and less squeaky clean when it comes to shades of morality.

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Like Guardians of the Galaxy or Suicide Squad or The Magnificent Seven, this is a film that ultimately hinges on its group of characters. While some shine out above the others, the large list of brand-new heroes feel very satisfying. Jyn Erso, continuing with The Force Awakens’ new tradition of strong but grounded female characters, has proper motivation. She doesn’t join the Rebellion from some clichéd sense of duty. She joins out of a sense of responsibility to mend (or in this case destroy) the wrongdoings her family has brought upon the galaxy; though she doesn’t join from guilt.

Which brings me to a pretty major subplot of the film, something that actually seeks to mend a decades-long complaint fans (and critics) have had about the original film: that major flaw in the Death Star’s construction. “Really?” they’ve claimed, “An exhaust port? A simple ‘oversight’ that the Empire was completely oblivious to?” While more ardent fans have learned to pass this “plot hole” off as merely a facet of the original film’s shortcomings, this film brilliantly explains that Jyn’s father, as head architect of the project, purposely placed that small but critical weakness to give the Rebellion that amoeba of a chance to destroy it. While attempting to explain away past films’ shortcomings could be considered a stretch, this particular explanation is pulled off with aplomb, making absolutely perfect sense.

While an ultimate weakness of Rogue One is a lack of proper character exposition—-with both some of the good guys and bad guys—-you never feel completely lost with the characters. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is a grim type, though a brief outburst reveals a bit into his past and sheds at least a little light on his motivations. Riz Ahmed’s Imperial turncoat Bodhi is perhaps the weakest character, but he’s still likeable enough. Wen Jiang’s Baze—-an initial naysayer of the Force and its capabilities—-spends enough time with his partner in crime (Donnie Yen’s character) to eventually become a believer. The film’s main baddie, Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, is director of the Death Star project. Though not as interesting as baddies like Tarkin, Ben Mendelsohn never veers into the melodramatic, even if portraying a bad guy in a Star Wars film gives you the urge to exercise your menacing acting chops.

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“All is as the Force wills it.”

But the two standout characters among the new ensemble are Donnie Yen’s blind warrior Chirrut and Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO. Chirrut is a staunch proponent of the Force and recites prayers to keep in tune with it. Besides having one very satisfying action scene, Chirrut is the kind of character that George Lucas had in mind when developing the concept of the Force and its followers. We’re provided with a small bit of his background as a guardian of the ancient Jedi temple, but his affable nature and strong sense of belief in the grander picture is what makes him such a likeable (nay, loveable) character.

For certain the character that people will be buying up the action figures for is the droid K-2SO. Alan Tudyk instills a genial sense of humor and a dry loyalty that will for certain make him a beloved Star Wars character in the years to come. Besides the host of new characters, there are a few surprise characters from A New Hope that make their way into this film, some (who I will not mention for the sake of spoilers) fully recreated with the use of mind-blowing CGI.

But one returning character that absolutely must be mentioned is the epitome of evil, Darth Vader. Faithfully recreated to look precisely as he did in A New Hope (with a slightly larger mask and that slight red glow in the eyes), Vader is used sparingly but in grand fashion. He only appears in a mere two scenes, but every second he spends in this film is a testament to just how foreboding and menacing he can truly be. I most certainly will not spoil his final scene, but I will say that for any Star Wars fan it is a truly fantastic wonder to behold.

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“Be careful not to choke on your own aspirations, Director.”

In a nutshell:

Faithfully recreated for its time period in Star Wars history, Rogue One dutifully and oftentimes perfectly captures the soul and spirit of Star Wars. Though it certainly could have used more of its run time to expound on the characters it introduces, and overall you can’t escape the sense that a better film is lurking somewhere in there, Rogue One is still an excellent addition to the Star Wars lore. Gorgeous CGI and cinematography, a breathtaking third act (with the best space battle since Return of the Jedi), and a true understanding for what it is all come together to make one very satisfying film. Rogue One gives a whole new meaning to the opening crawl of A New Hope, where we now know what major victory transpired and who the Rebels were that stole the Death Star plans.

 

8.5 stars

Moana

Posted: December 4, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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Wish for something more; break free of your restraints; traverse the world discovering adventure; take on a variety of perilous dangers; defeat evil; discover your true potential. Disney Animation Studios has been crafting these types of stories for decades, so much so that they’ve become archetypal. From The Princess and the Frog to Tangled to Frozen, the prestigious film studio is more than adept at taking a clichéd plot and putting such a twist on it that you simply become enthralled with all the visual splendor and loveable characters that occupy it.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

From a young age, the free-spirited Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has been enthralled with strange tales of gods and demi-gods. As she dreams of sailing beyond her comfortable island home, her father, the chief, demands she learn the duties as caretaker of her people. Her grandmother, on the other hand, encourages her to pursue her more ambitious endeavors.

But when all the fish disappear from the lagoons and the coconuts turn to dust, Moana journeys across the sea to find the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson—–The Fast and the Furious, San Andreas) who will reverse the peril he has brought on the world.

Also starring: Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk

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If you’ve enjoyed Disney’s modern take on female royalty—-where princesses of immaculate hair and flawless character have been replaced by young women prone to emotional duress but containing strength of will—-then Moana is sure to please. While modern feminism has become far distorted from its original intentions, Disney has always composed themselves with dignity and class when it comes to characters like Brave’s Merida and Frozen’s Anna. This Polynesian princess fits in perfectly with their existing ensemble of soft-but-sturdy female protagonists.

To be completely fair and objective, the story does veer into routine and oftentimes cliché. The previously-mentioned particular aspects of Disney princess flicks are ever present in Moana, to the point where I predicted with exact precision what the final shot of the film would be. However, what’s done to remedy this issue is the creation of an absolutely mesmerizing film in terms of visuals, not to mention endearing characters and delightful sidekicks that only Disney so expertly creates.

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Moana is gorgeous, and I do mean gorgeous. Though Disney’s films of old took on a character of their own with their organic hand-drawn animation, this film is testament to what can be accomplished with 3D computer animation. Lush, vivid colors enhance the film’s tropical setting. And the cinematography (especially utilized to maximum potential in a scene towards the film’s end) is an art unto itself.

But a world is only as good as the characters that occupy it. Fortunately, Moana nails this aspect as well. Its title character bears all the grace and charm of Rapunzel and the forthrightness of Merida. Her dilemma between choosing to please her parents but also following her passions is identifiable. Dwayne Johnson’s Maui borders on the egotistical and apathetic at first, but through character exploration we discover his true self. Plus he’s about as charismatic as you would expect a character voiced by The Rock would be. And the role of the silly sidekick is played by the dim-witted and brainless rooster Heihei.

This is also the first musical from Disney since Frozen. With songs written by hit-musical Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, Moana’s various musical tunes range from the beautifully arousing to the lightheartedly whimsical—-all composed with exquisite attention to its Polynesian inspiration. While the music may not be of the same caliber as Frozen, I nonetheless sought out the soundtrack immediately, and it will for sure become another enduring Disney musical.

In a nutshell:

Moana is a rousing, inspirational film purely within the vein of past Disney adventures. Though clichéd in narrative, it doesn’t alter the fact that Moana is an often poignant and entirely enjoyable journey that follows a girl whose own passion for something more in life and her love for her family and people resonate deeply within us. Moana is a film that will certainly keep you laughing and may even cause some tearing up of the eyes. Gorgeous, often mesmerizing visuals and a healthy respect for young womens’ potential without becoming a preachy feminist film lend themselves to make a wholly enjoyable and (potentially) classic film.

8 stars

Hacksaw Ridge

Posted: November 11, 2016 in Movie Reviews
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Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss rescues man after man in a barrage of flying bullets. 

Strength. Terror. Honor. Sacrifice. Brutality. Conviction. Every man—–from the most seasoned and war-hardened, to the first-day recruits—–learned under the most terrifying of circumstances what those words meant in their truest form. Strength: to charge into certain death. Terror: what they encountered. Honor: putting thier fellow soldiers before themselves. Sacrifice: either their very lives or, if fortunate enough, only a piece of it. Brutality: the thing that changed them forever. Conviction: something truly embodied by a man named Desmond Doss.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

When the world becomes engulfed in its 2nd world war, young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield—–The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man) feels lead to enlist and aid his fellow man. He enlists, but with one stipulation: he will not use or even wield a gun, using his medical skills to save lives instead of taking them. Despite overwhelming derision from his unit and an eventual court-martial, Desmond remains steadfast in his beliefs. It isn’t until his deployment to Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa that his fellow soldiers realize how utterly wrong they were in assuming his cowardice.

Also starring: Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths, and Hugo Weaving  

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Conviction is a characteristic inherent to every human being. It’s something we all live by. Even those who don’t adhere to strict religious beliefs have conviction. We all live with personal beliefs; the belief in hope, the belief in better times, the belief in human goodness. But I wonder who has convictions so deep-seeded and steadfast as Private First-Class Desmond Doss had.

His convictions were simple: God says do not kill. While humanity has been riddled with death and tragedy over the centuries, Desmond was someone who refused to perceive his own life above someone else’s, no matter how heinous the other person was. This moral decision caused him a great amount of strife within his unit.

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Hacksaw Ridge poignantly describes the situations from Doss’ own life that turned him into such a pacifist. It also highlights something about him that we all must utilize in our lives—–he didn’t expect others to adhere to his same convictions. So many people today who follow certain religious practices or follow certain lifestyles expect others to live by those same standards, when it ultimately only causes unnecessary strife and anguish. Desmond realized that in an army of men training to kill that his own worldview would be looked down upon, to say the least. But he remained faithful to his convictions. Even if you don’t agree with his notions, you should always admire someone who sticks to their beliefs in the face of ridicule and persecution.

It’s what Hacksaw Ridge accomplishes in its last third that makes it such a massively moving film. Never before has a war film been so brutal and stark in its demonstration of combat violence. Imagine the opening beach scene from Saving Private Ryan and then nearly double that in terms of graphic depiction. Of course it’s no surprise that a film from the director of The Passion of the Christ would depict such explicit brutality, but it comes no less shockingly. As the camera pans over strewn bodies of men ripped apart from explosions, your eyes fill with tears realizing that these are not images from some fictional imagination.

But it’s on a deeply personal level that this film hits such emotional chords. It’s in the heroic and often miraculous efforts of Desmond Doss that you realize how much more a man with a satchel of gauze and morphine can accomplish than a man with an assault rifle and flamethrower. When the attack on Hacksaw Ridge concludes and his men retreat to safer zones, Private Doss, under the cover of smoke, scours the battlefield and rescues man after man after man. “One more,” he keeps on saying, “God, just let me get one more.” Though it’s uncertain what the final number was (with the real Doss saying around 50 and most of his men saying 100), it’s estimated that the “coward” Desmond Doss rescued 75 men in the course of a night. 75 men returned home to their families.

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In a nutshell:

It’s rare that a war film of this caliber comes along. Very rare. In fact, the last film of its kind that I would compare it to in terms of film-making and grit is Saving Private Ryan. Stark and bitter in its presentation but containing just enough base humanity to keep us engaged, Hacksaw Ridge is a pure example of brilliant film-making. Not only do I smell Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but the performance by Andrew Garfield is one of the year’s best and certainly deserves a Best Actor nomination. In the wake of such political turmoil, how awesome it is to watch a film of this kind and be truly humbled.

9.5 stars

Doctor Strange

Posted: November 5, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bit multifaceted when it comes to its films. On the one hand you have the traditional “punchy” superhero flicks with the likes of Iron Man and Captain America, while recently Marvel has been pursuing more “otherworldly” titles. It began with Thor, the franchise’s first delve into the ethereal and mystical, and continued with its sequel as well as the zany Guardians of the Galaxy. This time around, Marvel probes even further into the mystic and explores just how much magic there is lurking behind other dimensions.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

When expert neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch—–The Imitation Game, Star Trek Into Darkness) is involved in a near-fatal car crash leaving his hands severely damaged, the demoralized doctor searches for any possible procedure to repair his life. When Western medicine proves a dead end, Dr. Strange turns to the East and its alternative methods. He finds solace in a group of sorcerers who teach him to expand his mind and broaden his view of the physical world. The result is a mystical journey into the inter-dimensions, a path that leads to great opposition and an enlightenment that Strange thought never possible.

Also starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton   

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Tragic circumstances unfortunately plague many, and oftentimes the difficulty of resuming life normally proves far too daunting and implausible. Stephen Strange is a character whose incessant shaking of the hands disallows him to continue on with his livelihood, something that has come to define him as a person. And, like many, his inability to mend what has been broken leads to bitterness and eschewing of those who care for him.

In this sense, Strange is relatable. Certainly not at first, as his Tony-Stark-like ego and mega pride make him something to be looked at with disdain. But you ultimately sympathize with his desire to heal and be whole again, even if his prior life contained no sense of completeness. While the film’s first act is admirable and conveys with aplomb what it needs to, it’s after Strange’s first encounter with the inter-dimensional world that the film ramps up.

What we’re treated to for the film’s duration is a true visual feast, a kaleidoscopic experience enhanced with mind-bending visual splendor and an almost hallucinogenic sense of stupor. Imagine looking through a kaleidoscope on LSD while watching Inception or The Matrix. The film’s action sequences are unlike anything seen before, especially within the Marvel universe, as fractal shapes make you question the very fabric of reality. Look for this film to not only be nominated for its achievement in visual effects at next year’s Academy Awards, but to win—–and win big.

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But great visuals are only enhancements—–cinematic utensils for telling a grander story. Your films are only as good as your actors. Fortunately, Doctor Strange utilizes some of the best acting talent around, including three Oscar nominees and one Oscar winner. Benedict Cumberbatch—–a world-class actor through and through—–delivers perhaps one of his greatest performances yet. His sheer talent seeps into his performance, an accomplishment akin to Robert Downey Jr.’s in Iron Man. It’s the ease of comedy and cockiness of nature coupled with charisma that Marvel Studios pursues (think Thor or Peter Quill). And while Mads Mikkelsen’s villain isn’t as fleshed-out as he perhaps should be (a staple flaw of Marvel Studios), Mikkelsen still imbues the role with a never-bombastic and grounded performance.

In a nutshell:

Yet again . . . yet again . . . the immortal Marvel Studios proves that nothing is too outlandish (I was avoiding the word “strange”) for them to tackle. The road to Infinity Wars is ramping up, with this film’s time-bending Infinity Stone being at its focus. Well-acted, well-paced, and well-directed, the ethereal mysticism behind Doctor Strange lends itself well to the overall tone. Though you occasionally become a bit lost with talk of other dimensions and time continuum and spiritualism over matter, the character of Stephen Strange is always right there at its heart, reminding us that human will and dedication will always trump mysticism.

8 stars

The BFG

Posted: July 5, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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Story after story throughout the history of storytelling has revolved around friendship and its limitless boundaries. It’s an uplifting theme recognizable in any culture and society. Whether between man and animal or between people from two vastly opposing walks of life, the plethora of stories dealing with relationships all deliver the same consensus: friendship knows no prejudice. Based off of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, The BFG depicts a friendship between two people separated by two very different worlds.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

After spotting an enormous creature stalking the streets of London in the dead of night, young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is plucked from her bed and taken to Giant Country. She quickly discovers, however, that this particular giant is indeed a friendly giant, a Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance—–Bridge of Spies). Unlike the other giants in the land, this peaceful giant doesn’t eat children, instead collecting dreams and delivering them to people as they sleep. But the other not-so-friendly giants in the land don’t share his morals. In order to save England’s children from being devoured, Sophie and the BFG seek help from the Queen to rid the land of such nasty brutes.

Also starring: Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, and Bill Hader

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The legendary Stephen Spielberg is among the most admired and respected directors of our time, a man whose multiple masterpieces of film will still be viewed centuries from now. We’ve seen him cover every genre from drama, war, animation, biopic, and family-friendly. Films like Hook and E.T. captured the spirit of childhood imagination. The BFG strives to accomplish very much the same thing.

The BFG is a film brimming with all the visual pizzazz and splendor that could derive from such a brilliant director. While a film of this type would suffer from an over-saturation of colors and CGI under most other directors, Spielberg manages to evoke the feeling of a fully realized set with authentic locations instead of a film modeled inside of a computer. Sure, there’s CGI aplenty, but it’s complemented by gorgeous imagery. But if there’s one standout aspect of the film’s visual splendor, it’s the motion-capture work done for Mark Rylance as the giant.

Coming off of his Oscar win for Bridge of Spies (also a Spielberg film), Rylance imbues the role with all the charm that could be given to a big, friendly giant. His pure charisma is coupled with some of the most gorgeous motion-capture work on a human character I’ve ever seen. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill plays her role with an equal amount of magnetism and sophistication. If there’s one thing that Spielberg accomplishes with aplomb in every one of his films, even the weaker ones, it’s coaxing the best performances from his actors that he possibly can. The young Sophie prompts just as much adoration and affection from the audience as E.T.’s Elliot.

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Where The BFG ultimately falls a bit short is in its narrative. The first two-thirds feel somewhat lost, with no immediate focus. The story plods along with only a slight feeling that it knows where it wants to go. It’s in the last third of the film, when the duo finally attempts to persuade the Queen for her help, that it finally kicks into gear. The previous events are in no way unwatchable, they merely lack the drive to make us completely invested. But the two characters blend together with such seamless charm that it makes the first hour and a half bearable.

In a nutshell:

If The BFG is trying to be merely a fanciful family film with levity and magical charm, then it accomplishes its goal. If The BFG is striving to be something more meaningful (as one would excpect under the direction of a filmmaker like Spielberg), then it falls a bit short. The performances are as heart-felt and genuine as they could possibly be, and it’s a visually gorgeous piece of work, but this film just doesn’t quite hit the mark that it was perhaps aiming for.

6.5 stars

 

Finding Dory

Posted: June 18, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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Back in 2003, Pixar Studio’s résumé was far less varied than it is now. Before the rat with culinary skills, airborne houses, linguistic cars, and mind-dwelling emotions, Pixar’s array of animated masterpieces were limited (“limited”) to talking toys, oppressed bugs, and energy-seeking monsters. Then along came Finding Nemo, a film brimming with warmth and vivacity, epic storytelling, memorable characters, and gorgeous animation that still looks just as mesmerizing as it did 13 years ago. Among its ensemble of memorable characters was Dory—–the charming blue tang with a knack for forgetting things. But now that Nemo has been found, Pixar has taken the opportunity to expound on Dory’s story.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

One year after her tumultuous journey across the vast ocean, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) begins to have flashes of her past. When she remembers a vital clue regarding her parents’ whereabouts, she sets off to find them after years of not remembering anything about them. Determined to not allow somebody else he cares about get lost, Marlin (Albert Brooks——Taxi Driver) and his son Nemo accompany her. But when Dory is scooped up from the water and taken to a California marine rehabilitation center, Marlin and Nemo head in after her, accepting help along the way from the most unlikely of allies.

Also starring: Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Kaitlin Olsen, Hayden Rolence, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Sigourney Weaver

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Finding Nemo is among the greatest of Pixar’s prestigious achievements, so it only makes sense that its sequel would require just as much charm and whimsy as its predecessor. While the end result doesn’t quite deliver the greatness of the first, it does infuse it with enough of its best qualities.

As wildly entertaining as Dory is in Finding Nemo, she never seemed like the type of character that needed her own story. Sure, her past was an enigma, but we  really didn’t need to see it (of course, what film do we ever need to see?). I was a bit worried that this film would feel like a stretch, only existing for the sake of capitalizing on its predecessor’s success. Yet every time I doubt Pixar I almost always find myself wondering why I did. In fact, I would say that Dory is a more appropriate title character than even Nemo was.

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I was also pleased to see that characters from the first film are used sparingly (except, of course, for the main three), while some don’t make an appearance at all. I appreciate that only characters that truly added to the story were included. When a film like Finding Nemo makes such a big splash (no pun intended) with an audience, it’s just come to be expected that the sequel will throw as many of its favorite characters back onto the screen as it physically can.  But with Finding Dory, it uses a few of the old characters but utilizes the opportunity to develop brand-new ones, not merely relying on the nostalgia of the original to carry it forward.

The voice acting is simply splendid; each voice sounds distinct yet appropriate. But the real MVP of the film is Ed O’Neill who voices an octopus named Hank. Gruff in nature yet lovable at his core, Hank’s journey feels organic and not at all forced. His allying with Dory feels natural and wholly plausible. But overall, not one character in the film feels even slightly annoying or heavy-handed, an aspect that most animated films these days (even, on occasion, a Disney film) is guilty of. But if we’re talking about loveable characters, then the epitome of loveable in this film is baby Dory. Remember how adorable Squirt was? Multiply that cuteness factor x5.

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Another incredible aspect of this film is the animation, something that just keeps being repeated every time Pixar makes a film. Remember how utterly amazing the landscapes looked in The Good Dinosaur? How every tree, mountain, and river looked like it was filmed by a National Geographic crew? Well Finding Dory’s ocean looks just as incredible. Even the film’s opening short Piper (an immensely enjoyable little tale) utilizes a photo-realistic environment.

In a nutshell:

Not much can be said negatively of this film, other than the last act could’ve used the smallest hint of fine-tuning, and the film ends somewhat abruptly. Also, Sia’s song “Unforgettable” that accompanies the end credits isn’t anywhere near as appropriate in style as Robbie William’s “Beyond the Sea” was in Finding Nemo. But these are mere grievances that are easily forgettable. Finding Dory is a sheer delight from start to finish, infused with well-placed humor, even more loveable characters, a sparkling musical score, and all the TLC that Pixar can spare.

8 stars